Saturday, 9 January 2016

2016 Travel plan: Scaling down

I have just returned from a 2-week marathon through Colombia. There will hopefully be a separate post on that trip, but my spoiler alert is that the country lived up to my expectations beautifully. While I cannot say I preferred Colombia to my usual winter visits to Asia, being on the other side of the meridian had its charms, too.

2016 is already pushing forward, and so are my travel plans. The end of last year was so mad at work that I did not have the energy or desire, even in my spare time, to sit down and plan our my year’s worth of travels properly for 2016. Corporate pressure is still ripe, but I am finally getting around to deciding where 2016 takes me.

I have to make a confession here: I may have overdone it a bit with travel in 2015, when several long-haul holidays and weekend breaks made planning for and recovering from travel almost another full-time job in addition to my existing one. While I usually plan trips months in advance to minimise costs, I was also amazed to discover that spontaneous trips – like my buzz-off to FYR Macedonia last August – were sometimes even more fun that those meticulously contemplated a year early.

Given that I expect 2016 to be crazier than ever before at work, I plan to scale down my travel a little. Faraway trips in exotic places are difficult to give up, but I will try and avoid booking too many weekends away, especially consecutive ones. I am at the stage of my life (and age) when interchanging a demanding job with treks to London airports and abroad destinations endlessly is less fun than before. Being tired somewhere – even places as exciting as Sicily or Wroclaw – has too often resulted in almost forcing myself to get out and take photos without appreciating the experience as much as I should have. Sometimes I would rather just chill in London or travel in a more paced manner, and I plan to do more of it in 2016.

I am not stopping travelling altogether though! 2016 is promising to be exciting and different, with visits to five continents and at least three new countries. Below you will find the list of my planned destinations for this year:

1. Bari, Italy (February): I have never been a big enthusiast for Italy. Fellow philhellenes will understand me here: my total adoration of all things Greece is well known, so why overfocus on a country that looks and behaves roughly like Greece in places, but isn’t one? The language freak in me also prefers to visit countries whose languages I speak at least to some degree, so I will always choose Spain (my Spanish is broken but lives on), the Slavic Balkans (my Serbian is surprisingly resilient despite the lack of practice) and, naturally, Greece (in whose language I consider myself fluent) over less understandable Mediterranean destinations.

And yet! While recently scouring the internet for decently priced European weekend destinations in the off-season, I came across a very competitive fare to Bari from Stansted. A quick image search confirmed that the place was acceptably pretty and by the seaside – and what else would a girl with a camera want? I can even live with being a dumb Anglophone tourist for a couple of days.

This is marina in Palermo, Sicily. Could easily be Greece, right?

2. Chile (March / April): Chile is quite possibly my single most coveted destination of the past few years. I have already visited Argentina, and was left absolutely speechless about Patagonia’s majestic beauty. I very much seek to rekindle this feeling in Chile, which, like Argentina, hosts plenty of Patagonia’s natural wonders.

Chile is by far the most painstakingly planned out trip in my calendar at the moment. It took me many evenings of concentration, but here goes: in 2.5 weeks, I will explore the capital city of Santiago and the remote Easter Island before taking a long transfer to the Torres del Paine National Park where I will spend five days hiking the so-called “W Circuit” of the park from Refugio Torres to Glaciar Grey. I will then backtrack to Punta Arenas in the country’s extreme south and fly a tiny plane to Puerto Williams, a remote settlement on the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. Alan will be waiting for me in Punta Arenas when I return a couple of days later.

The Argentine Patagonia is probably the most strikingly beautiful place I have ever visited

3. Falkland Islands (April): Another advantage of Chile is that it provides one of only two existing air links to the Falkland Islands (please do not use the “M-word” here), which both Alan and I have wanted to visit for a significant amount of time. We will finally be able to realise this dream in April by visiting the remote archipelago briefly from Chile. Scheduled commercial flights to the Falklands from Chile only run once weekly – on Saturdays, from Punta Arenas – so we will be confined to the Falklands for an entire seven days. Oh joy!

Most tourists visit the islands as part of the (expensive) cruise from Ushuaia, Argentina, to the Antarctic territories. Thankfully, the tourist flow will have subsided by April, and it will be a great privilege to spend an entire week on the Falklands rather than a few days included in your typical cruise. We plan to base ourselves in the main town of Stanley, as well as rent a car to explore the East Falkland island and fly a small government plane to Pebble Island for a couple of days of even more solitude than in the sparsely populated Stanley.

Most importantly, Alan and I plan to get married in the Falklands. We have always wanted to elope, so why not do so to some place eerily isolated yet sharing English legislation? I was never one to dream of a big wedding – a sole idea of even a small wedding sends shivers of horror down my spine – and tying the knot in the Falklands would ensure that nobody would ever want to invite themselves! May our friends and family please forgive us.

Fix your economy, Argentina, and leave our islands alone


4. Serifos / Paros / Antiparos, Greece (June): I make my pilgrimages to the Greek shores yearly; thankfully, Alan appears to be coming out equally a fan. In June, I will first visit the Cycladic island of Serifos alone before meeting Alan on Paros and jointly visiting the latter’s smaller satellite, Antiparos. Besides enjoying the obvious magnets of Greece like the sparkling Aegean and fresh seafood, Alan and I plan to engage a professional photographer to take our wedding photos on Paros. The professional in question is from South Africa but permanently based on Paros, takes amazing pictures and has won awards – needless to say I am glad we booked him early.

So will we be getting married again on Paros, I hear you ask? No – we will in fact shamelessly cheat as we pose in our wedding attire in the backdrop of the stunning Greek blue and white, so alone and unburdened by the dark aspects of your typical English wedding.

Windmill in Parikia, Paros - the instantly recognisable sight of the Cyclades

5. Bolivia (August / September): As you can see, my 2016 is shaping up to be heavily tilted towards South America! I have long planned to visit Bolivia, and have chosen the local winter time to do so. British Airways are starting to serve Peru’s capital Lima soon, and, as a loyal BA fan, I plan to take that flight to catch a connection to La Paz in Bolivia. I will then take things easy as I acclimatise, spending some quiet time in La Paz and on the magnificent Lake Titicaca before visiting the colonial gems of Sucre and Potosi and descending to what possibly is the world’s most famous salt flat, Salar de Uyuni. I will spend 2-3 days freezing to my bones there and then cross the border into Chile.

Yes, with Chile being a stretched out country that it is, I stand absolutely no chance of visiting its northern part on my earlier 2016 trip. Thankfully, the beauties of Chile’s Atacama desert are within easy reach from Uyuni. I plan to explore the area in detail before flying out to Santiago and onwards to London.

Salta in Argentina is also within easy reach of Uyuni

6. Ishigaki, Japan (October): I had originally planned to visit Turkmenistan for a week in October, but changed my mind after realising, in Bhutan, how difficult it was for me to follow an organised tour (there is no way to visit Turkmenistan independently). I put forward a number of alternative destinations to Alan, who chose Japan – naturally, as he is a big fan. I have already been to Japan twice: first on a 2.5 week zoom around the “mainland” in 2013 and second on a 2-day stopover in Okinawa with Alan in 2014. My fiancé got so enamoured with Japan he has been talking about revisiting ever since – and of course I love Japan too!

It is a lesser known fact that Japan owns several tropical islands, located nearer Taiwan than Japan proper. Given time constraints, Alan and I will focus on Ishigaki, the second largest island of the Yaeyama archipelago. We also plan to take day-trips to Taketomi and Iriomote islands in the vicinity. Okinawa was the place with the best food on my travel memory, and I very much hope that Ishigaki will live up to the  same high standard.

Zamami-jima island does not look typically Japanese

7. New Zealand (December): I know – I have been “planning” to visit New Zealand for about four Christmases now, but always changed my mind at the last minute. This time it is hopefully all set: I will fly to New Zealand at the end of the year to be among the first citizens on earth to clock in 2017. I am not fully clear on the itinerary yet, but I have a feeling I will need to stick to either North or South Island and leave the other for another visit. Since I am keen on warmth during the European winter, I may choose the tropical North Island. On the other hand, I imagine the South Island as superior in natural beauty and striking vistas. As said, I am undecided – any advice on this is welcome.

So that’s the plan! There will of course be other trips: I will probably slot in places like Spain and Romania in the mix at some point. I have also had the Channel Islands grow on me recently, and will try to visit a new island in the archipelago in 2016. And there will most certainly be at least one trip each to my old haunts of Helsinki and Athens, as well as multiple visits to Riga.

So please stay tuned and I hope I will be seeing many of you this year. Have a good one!

Sunday, 20 December 2015

2015 Newsletter

Another year is knocking on the door. I am writing this last post of 2015 in Colombia where I arrived in the wee hours this very morning to spend what’s left of 2015 in relative peace.

I suspect that I will not be looking forward to leaving Colombia and returning to the stress that life and work in London have become. In several ways, 2015 was a challenging year. Work at my supposedly calm development institution of an employer has been overflowing, with ever piling demands and enormous pressure. From various factors (on which I will not elaborate here), I have started fearing I was not a particularly good employee – arguably a hard realisation to live with for a perfectionist like me. But I may of course be overreacting.

Work aside – and I mean it when I say work has been difficult to put aside in the past year – my 2015 has looked unquestionably spectacular. First, I have passed a Greek language attainment exam and achieved “Excellent” in the B2 (vantage) level, reliving that long-forgotten ecstatic feeling when, years ago, I was a diligent university student.

In an even more joyous moment, by March I had finally become a British citizen and got engaged to the man of my dreams, my best friend and ultimate source of support, my Alan. And, later in the year, our flat in Riga had finally been completed. Given neither of us is based permanently in Riga, furnishing the flat has so far been slow, but we are getting there.

Perhaps at the expense of stellar work performance, I continued to fight the corporate manacles to travel the world as much as I could. I will have set foot in 18 countries by year-end, four of which will be first-timers. A modest achievement in light of several preceding years, I think this is nevertheless impressive given the unending demands, from a number of sources, on my free time – the demands I see as unlikely to ease any time soon.

One of my most cherished memories of 2015, Himalayan range from a Bhutan-bound plane


But let us begin! The departing year started in the most exciting way possible – on top of a high-rise hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Alan and I dancing away to the sound of the 1980s under the popping fireworks. Alan even clumsily tried to propose at some point, which the alcohol in my system laughed off, forcing the poor fellow to wait for the next suitable moment. We later travelled to Kandy, an important Buddhist site in Sri Lanka and the country’s former capital, and Negombo – a beach town not far from the international airport. Sri Lanka was a little more touristy than I had expected, and far less relaxing than Burma where I stayed for two weeks before Sri Lanka – so, if I ever come back, it will most certainly be off-season.

Panoramic view of Kandy

Young Buddhist monks in Kandy

Negombo beach

Following our return to London, we settled into a quiet routine for a couple of months. Alan was still working solely out of Germany, visiting London on alternate weekends, and I took a break from travel for a while – until, at the end of February, I briefly visited the city of Wroclaw in Poland. Unexpectedly, it swiftly became my favourite Polish city for its beautifully restored centre and plenty of interesting sites. I also travelled to a small spa town of Kudowa-Zdrój on the Czech border to visit the most charming retired couple I know, Pierre-Yves and Urszula – who gave me a fantastic tour of their modest surroundings, including a 5-minute walk across the Czech border and back.

Central square in Wroclaw

Pierre-Yves and Urszula, Kudowa-Zdrój

At the end of February, I attended a Project Finance International award ceremony for one of the projects I worked on in Turkey. The event was presented by Jimmy Carr in very person, and I even had a group photo taken with the man. I cannot say I enjoyed Carr’s rather specific humour, which was even more sexist than usual thanks to the heavily dominant presence of macho banker men. At least they looked suitably entertained!

With that offensive character

As the winter was coming to an end, two important events happened – one good and one not so. On the good side, Alan finally managed to gather up the courage to try and propose without me laughing it off in the end. And on the bad side, just a day after our engagement I had my worst bicycle crash ever. I fell yet another victim to London cabbies’ terrible habit of opening doors into the traffic: the door slammed open suddenly, hitting me between the middle and ring fingers of the left hand and forcing me to fly over the door and crash on the ground with my right set of ribs. It took me a few seconds to regain the ability to breathe as I squirmed in pain. Overcome by shock, I somehow let the cabby convince me I was fine and drive off – it was only after he left, unscathed, that I regained my senses and headed to an A&E unit. Miraculously, nothing was broken, but the ribs took months to stop hurting – and the hand was swollen for similarly long.

On the bright side, I was not wearing my engagement ring during the crash – judging by the state of my ring finger, it would have certainly been destroyed by the power of the collision. I have been wearing the ring on my right hand ever since; in a lucky coincidence, that also turned out to be the Russian Orthodox way.


The memories of the bike crash still fresh in my head, the beginning of spring welcomed me with some much-needed good news. On 3 March, my long-term dream of becoming a British citizen finally came true. I attended a British citizenship ceremony, swearing allegiance to the Queen and singing along to the national anthem for the first time in my new capacity. I was very fortunate to have Alan share this memorable day with me, and we used the chance to announce our engagement to the world – many of you had commented how clever it was of Alan to time his proposal with my citizenship ceremony, and I am terribly sorry to disappoint!

Getting photobombed by Her Majesty, again

To my great regret, I could not apply for the British passport straight away – doing so required me to part with my Latvian passport for some time, which I could not do having gone into a full-on travel mode. First, in early March I travelled to Cairo and Damanhour in Egypt for work. Egypt is not the country I particularly enjoy visiting – reasons include wild traffic, persistent stares, the necessity to wear my least favourite item of clothing (trousers) and the clients’ propensity to smoke during meetings. Given I work in development however, I should not complain.

I then sandwiched in a quick weekend in Slovakia – Bratislava and Trenčín – before heading straight to another business trip, this time to Egypt’s complete opposite, Georgia. It was an exciting third visit to the country: after enjoying Tbilisi for a couple of days, my colleagues and I drove to the seaside jewel of Batumi to attend a financial close event for one of our projects. I got to listen to live speeches by some high-profile guests, including Georgia’s Prime Minister and Minister of Energy, the latter famously known as the former international footballer, Kakha Kaladze.

Central Tbilisi seen from Narikala Castle

Batumi skyline by night

Done with business trips for a while, I embarked on my first long getaway of the year, to Iran. I had meticulously planned this visit for months, overcoming obstacles like (i) the earlier closure of the Iranian Embassy in London, meaning that the Iranian visa cost me around £300; (ii) the need to pack a stack of dollars and plan my budget religiously as western credit cards absolutely do not work in Iran; and (iii) limited choice of attire to avoid my much hated western trousers – a staple for Iranian ladies. I was grateful for the multiple salwar khameez combinations I had earlier bought in India. Fully compliant with the strict Iranian dress code, salwar khameez had one major disadvantage: no-one else was wearing it so I was attracting attention at all times – as well as asked which “part of Pakistan” I was from.

My many outfits in Iran

Obstacles aside, Iran absolutely blew my mind. I flew into the north-western city of Tabriz near Azerbaijan, admiring the UNESCO heritage site of the Old Bazaar and the stunning Kandovan village nearby. I then travelled to Tehran, which turned out to be a surprisingly modern and beautiful city with a fabulous gold bazaar. I was breath-taken by the quiet Kashan where I got to explore amazing old merchant houses and, courtesy of a kind local, run atop the endless roof of the local covered bazaar. Past the stunning red village of Abyaneh, I arrived in timeless Esfahan which amazed me with its vast squares, bridges and elaborate mosques. In Yazd, I got to explore the ancient city and party hard with a local family who met me by chance and “adopted” me for the night. I found the city of Kerman less interesting than expected, but the nearby Kaluts desert and sand formations – absolutely superb. Finally, on my last stop in the famous city of Shiraz, I had a whale of a time meeting locals and tasting some home-made wine – which almost made me miss my morning flight out of the country, but that is a different story altogether.

Kandovan village near Tabriz

Local lady in Yazd

Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah, Esfahan

Immediately after returning, I was off to Slovenia for work, and then back in the holiday mode as Alan and I flew to India for a week. We had both been to India separately before, but never together, so it was natural that we wanted to visit places previously unseen to both of us. From Chennai, we travelled to the archipelago of the Andaman Islands, which belong to India for historic reasons but lie much nearer Indochina. We spent a few blissful days on the island of Havelock, enjoying excellent seafood for our every meal and taking countless photos on the beach. Back on the mainland, we made a day-trip to Puducherry, which was so sweltering hot in May that we had to seek refuge in the nearest air-conditioned hotel over some 1.5 litres of (tax-free) chilled beer. It was a wonderful trip to celebrate our engagement.

Gandhi statue in Chennai

Sunset on Radhanagar beach, Havelock island

Paradise beach in the east, Havelock island

Finally, we closed off the spring with a 3-day visit to Greece. It was Alan’s first visit to the country – I stopped counting mine a long time ago – and he absolutely loved it. We hopped over from Athens to the small island of Angistri in the Saronic Gulf, made friends with our hotel owner and circled the island several times in her car. We also watched Eurovision broadcast live in a seaside café, by far the most scenic Eurovision-accompanying venue I have ever experienced. Alan was so impressed with Greece he cannot stop talking about buying property there. Let’s hope it happens!

Sunset over Mesochori harbour, Angistri

Church of Agioi Argyroi in Skala, Angistri


My travel extravaganza finally came under control in June, and I could finally apply for my British passport. I collected it on 11 June and christened it on another business trip to Georgia at the end of the month. I visited the country’s second largest city of Kutaisi and three future hydroelectric sites in the remote regions of Racha and Svaneti. It is amazing to think that, despite having visited so many parts of Georgia, I still have a lifetime worth of exploration to do.

My favourite view of Tbilisi Old Town

Kutaisi from Bagrati Cathedral

Lukhuni river, Racha region

Earlier in June, I had the pleasure of introducing Alan to my nearest family: several aunties and cousins in Ventspils, Latvia. Alan held out like a hero to his traditional welcome of vodka and spanking in the Russian sauna accompanied by live schlager music – I certainly made the right choice of a life partner there. We also got a photographer to take a few professional photos of us in Riga.

That tough induction for an Englishman

Alan and I all posy in Riga

July brought two quick trips to the island of Jersey in the Channel Islands and Stavanger in Norway. In Jersey, having initially wondered why accommodation was so hard to come by that weekend, Alan and I realised we had inadvertently timed our visit with the Island Games 2015: the sporting event for residents of various islands (yes, really). This made the atmosphere in the main town of St. Helier quite joyous; as a bonus, we got to see the most unusual combinations of sports jerseys in the streets: Falklands met Åland, Faroes placated the Isle of Man and Shetland celebrated loudly with Saaremaa.

Corbiere point and lighthouse in south-western Jersey

On my second visit to Stavanger, I did the famous Kjerag hike and admired the sight of the subtly glowing Lysefjord, my favourite fjord in Norway. I summoned all my courage to step onto the notorious Kjeragbolten boulder wedged in the rock at the end of the hike – but I lasted nowhere near long enough to have my photo taken there, let alone strike a smiley pose. Other tourists did not really seem to mind the sheer drop of about 1 km down to Lysefjord beneath their feet though: hat off to them.

Steep drop towards Lysefjord from Kjerag

Come August, I used up a bonus day off to travel to the cheapest destination I could find at short notice: Skopje, FYR Macedonia. Skopje decidedly entertained me with grotesque recent additions to its cityscape as part of the “Skopje 2014” revamp. I was soon on my way to a much prettier part of the country, the Mavrovo National Park. The place is best known for its ski resorts and fills up in the skiing season; at the height of the summer though, it was fabulously calm. I was amazed by Mavrovo’s outstanding hiking opportunities: on my 20 km hike from Mavrovo to Galicnik, the only creatures I met were shepherds accompanied by sheep (obviously) and angry shepherd dogs. Not a single fellow hiker in the region known for outstanding natural beauty: I like to call it paradise.

Remodelled Macedonia Square and "War on a Horse", Skopje

New Church of St. Nicholas' and Mavrovo Lake, Mavrovo

Alan and I also visited two destinations together in August: Helsinki and Mumbai. In Helsinki, the city I call home having studied there years ago, I saw many friends including a very special guest to the city, my Romanian “sis” Denisa. Mumbai was a spontaneous weekend trip which, no matter how short, we did not regret. Our Indian visas were still valid from the Andamans visit, and we spent two wonderful days catching up with old friends, Avi and Shruti, crashing another friend’s birthday party, shopping for beautiful embroidered fabrics – and, naturally, swimming in the outdoor pool at the Taj Hotel. It is only with Alan that I finally discovered how relaxing India can be behind high walls of a 5-star hotel.

Man relaxing on Oval Maidan, Mumbai

The highlight of August was the 80th birthday celebration of Chris, Alan’s father and my future father-in-law. The man is among the kindest and funniest (old) chaps I know, and I really enjoyed the small family gathering in Spalding, Lincolnshire to mark the occasion.

All smiles in Spalding


The autumn season opened with much awaited news of our Riga flat – our first baby together – being completed and ready for take-over. We signed all the papers and became co-landlords on 11 September. The interior of the flat is edging ahead slowly, but there is already a bed, a wardrobe, a sofa, an armchair, a bookcase and a washing machine – though no kitchen yet. I even took a day-trip to Helsinki in October to load up on my much adored Marimekko textiles for the flat. Another welcoming piece of news was Alan’s work schedule: he started working one week in three out of London, meaning our encounters became more frequent.

Alan and I raising wine glasses (with champagne) on the balcony of our new flat

At the end of September, I was desperate for a longer holiday and travelled to Greece for a week of (so I thought) enjoying cloudless skies. Little did I know that I was going to experience a full-on Aegean storm lasting 24 hours and spitting out lightning and thunder every few minutes! I still greatly enjoyed the four new islands I visited in just over a week: (i) Kos, a victim of its own popularity, which I only lingered on for a few hours; (ii) Nisyros famous for its amazing volcano caldera; (iii) Tilos where I was stunned by the eerie abandoned village of Mikro Chorio and followed amazing mountain paths; and (iv) Kalymnos from which I expected nothing and which amazed me most – I have not seen friendlier locals on any other island in Greece. And I can be trusted, for I have visited 38!

Agios Theologos Church in Nikia, Nisyros

Mikro Chorio village, Tilos

Boat sailing into the sunset off Myrties, Kalymnos

Unable to wait till next year, I paid a weekend visit to the Greek island of Kerkyra (Corfu) in early October, only to repack within an hour of my return to London and head back to Gatwick airport to fly to Dubrovnik, Croatia. This time it was a work affair: my colleagues and I spent two days in Dubrovnik and two nearby islands, Šipan and Lopud, on a so-called team retreat. Many of you have pointed out how lucky I was to visit Croatia on leisurely work (or “working leisure”?), but trust me, few things are less fun than being surrounded by all your seniors – including the lady boss – all clad in trunks and bikinis.

Main village beach of Lopud island near Dubrovnik

Things desperately speeding up at work for the year-end, I managed to escape on a much awaited 10-day holiday in Bhutan. It was decidedly the most expensive trip I have ever undertaken and, in retrospect, I would possibly have chosen to go elsewhere. That said, Bhutan was superb in its unique culture and traditions. I took a rather classic round trip from Paro to the capital of Thimphu, the Punakha valley, the Phobjikha valley and the cultural heartland of Bumthang. Bhutan amazed me with its unspoilt nature – 70 percent of its territory is covered with forests and many a mountain peak embrace its borders – and spoilt me with its unusual cuisine, so unlike in the neighbouring India and Nepal but, reportedly, close to the traditional Tibetan fare. I was also breath-taken by the tsechu (Buddhist festival featuring masked dancers in bright costumes) at Jakar Dzong (fortress) in Bumthang. In short, I highly recommend Bhutan to all those with deep pockets!

Taktshang Goemba (Tiger's Nest Monastery)

Bhutanese girl watching the tsechu at Jakar Dzong, Bumthang

View from Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten complex near Punakha

It was head-first into work on my return, but I managed a couple more weekends away before calling it a year: to Edinburgh and Sicily. In Edinburgh, Alan and I met some of my friends from the days when I used to spend all my free time in Scotland and sported a Scottish accent, as well as took shelter from the endless rain in the city’s cosy pubs. It was also in Edinburgh that we enjoyed what was quite possibly my favourite meal of the year, at the Skerries restaurant near Murrayfield.

Incredibly rainy Edinburgh from Calton Hill

I had unforgivably little time to explore Sicily, but was able to visit two cities, Palermo and Cefalù. They could not have been more different: the former was large, dirty and chaotic while popular Cefalù – pleasantly calm and tourist-free at the end of November.

Cefalù town beach

View from La Rocca towards Cefalù


As we bid farewell to 2015, I want to wish you and your families a wonderful festive season and a New Year of your dreams! May 2016 bring with it all the good things that 2015 perhaps lacked. Here goes also to many exciting adventures and discoveries of shores unknown!

~~~View my Flickr photo albums and my 2015: Year in Pictures photo highlights of 2015~~~

~~~Follow me on Instagram @ anutele~~

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

2015: Year in Pictures

2015 was full of exciting travel experiences in the life of anjči.

In April, I took a solo overland trip from Tabriz to Shiraz in Iran where I managed to go for 2.5 weeks (almost) without any alcohol as well as see one of the most incredible countries on my memory. In May, my fiancé Alan and I enjoyed a week-long getaway in sweltering Chennai and the Andaman Islands in India to celebrate our engagement. I was extremely fortunate to take not one, but entire two business trips to my all-time favourite country to visit for work – Georgia – in March and June, including the seaside city of Batumi, the mountainous region of Svaneti and precious free time in what is one of my favourite cities in the world, Tbilisi.

In a somewhat masochistic way, I had a whale of a time in August on an exhausting 20km hike on varied terrain between the villages of Mavrovo and Galicnik in FYR Macedonia’s Mavrovo National Park. In September, I embarked on an off-season island-hopping experience in the Greek archipelago of the Dodecanese, visiting the islands of Kos, Nisyros, Tilos and Kalymnos. In October, I spoilt myself with a 10-day slightly overpriced extravaganza in the self-proclaimed Himalayan paradise of Bhutan, discovering the country's unique cultures and stunning mountain views.

And in only a few days (yes, I am counting) I will board a plane heading to the welcoming shores of sunny Colombia to spend two weeks enjoying peace – and taking many a beautiful picture to share with you later. I will include Colombia in this post in the new year.

Don't forget to take a look at my traditional 2015 Newsletter where the happenings of the departing year will be described in more detail (and fewer photos). As always, all my photo albums can be found on Flickr.

Without further ado though, let's recap the photos by which I would like to remember the departing year.

Himalayan vistas en route Bhutan

1-4 January: The welcoming of 2015 is probably the most fun New Year celebration in my life, ever. Having come to Sri Lanka to attend the wedding of our friends the day before, Alan and I spend the first night of 2015 dancing away wildly on top of a high-rise hotel in central Colombo, sparkly hats and all. We eventually make it to Kandy, Sri Lanka’s sacred city and a former capital, after missing a series of trains as we spend the following morning recovering from the spectacular celebration. Having admired the Kandy Lake and the Temple of the Sacred Tooth of Buddha, we spend our last day in Sri Lanka on the Negombo beach – positioned ever so conveniently in the vicinity of the airport.
~Colombo / Kandy / Negombo, Sri Lanka

Kandy Lake panorama, Kandy

Two young Buddhist monks, Kandy

Negombo beach

Fisherman at sunset, Negombo

28 February – 1 March: After two months of winter “hibernation” and hardly leaving London, I finally venture out for a short weekend in Poland. I expect close to nothing from Wroclaw, but it instantly becomes my favourite Polish city – beating even Krakow – for its lack of tourists, provincial feel and beautifully restored central streets. I manage to find only a dozen of Wroclaw’s iconic dwarf figurines (“krasnale”) scattered around the city in much greater numbers, before it is time to board a bus to Kudowa-Zdroj, a small spa town on the Czech border. I spend a wonderful 24 hours there in the company of Pierre-Yves and Urszula, possibly the most travelled retired couple I know. Their youthful spirit almost makes me long for retirement! As a bonus, we cross over to Czech Republic – for about 5 minutes – in what seems to be a most mundane occasion in Kudowa-Zdroj.
~Wroclaw / Kudowa-Zdroj, Poland

Solny Square, Wroclaw

One of those famous “krasnale”, Wroclaw

View towards Swietego Krzyza Church from Piasek Island, Wroclaw

3 March: This date will forever be remembered and celebrated in the life of anjči for two important milestones. First, following almost a year’s delay on the Home Office side, I finally get granted British citizenship in February 2015 and am invited to attend the citizenship ceremony on 3 March to seal my allegiance to Britain. Second, Alan and I use the opportunity to announce our engagement on the very same day. Yes, despite the popular belief, Alan did not in fact go down on one knee in the Southwark Register Office! It is among the happiest days of my life – and I even get to sing God Save The Queen in my entirely new capacity.
~London, United Kingdom

14-15 March: I travel to Slovakia to, strangely enough, see “something new”! Despite having travelled widely around Europe, I have never been to Slovakia before and spend a short weekend rectifying the situation. There is hardly enough time to give justice to what turns out to be a charmingly beautiful country, but I have plenty of fun in the capital of Bratislava and venture out to the smaller town of Trenčín and the Devín Castle in the outskirts of Bratislava – not forgetting to consume shameless amounts of locally brewed dark beer and enough bryndzové halušky (potato dumplings with cheese) to feed a small family.
~Bratislava / Trenčín, Slovakia

Panoramic Bratislava

Street art, Bratislava

Panoramic Trenčín

17-20 March: A week before, I spend a few days in not-exactly-my-favourite-country-to-visit-for-work – I’ll let you guess but the clues are (i) horrific traffic, (ii) meetings full of cigarette smoke, and (iii) need to don modest dress. Thankfully I am soon on my way to the exact opposite, the gorgeous gem of Georgia. After a couple of days meeting clients in the stunning capital of Tbilisi, we drive to the port city of Batumi to celebrate the financial close on one of our transactions. It is a massive event featuring the Prime Minister, the Minister of Energy (best known as former footballer, Kakha Kaladze), a constellation of international development institutions – and, last but not least, spectacular traditional Georgian dancers. I cheer so loudly Mr. Kaladze almost gives me a red card.
~Tbilisi / Batumi, Georgia

View from Narikala Castle of central Tbilisi

Odd street art, Tbilisi

Batumi panorama on a cloudy off-season day

Batumi beach

3-18 April: Planning my trip to Iran is challenging in many ways. First, I need to take enough currency, in US dollars, to last me for my entire stay as my credit cards won’t work in Iran. Second, I need to plan out my outfits in detail to appear both Muslim-friendly and elegant – bearing in mind I avoid trousers as much as possible. Third, the Iranian embassy in the UK is closed, and obtaining a visa has suddenly become a lengthy and expensive procedure. I gradually manage all of the above; there is a mistake in my visa which no-one notices, and I cross uneventfully into Iran! My trip is spectacular: I explore the UNESCO heritage bazaar in Tabriz, shop frantically for gold at Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, discover the beautiful merchant houses of Kashan, lose all words at the beauty of Esfahan, party madly with a local family in Yazd, ditch my headwear in the solitude of the Kaluts sand formations and nearly miss my morning flight from Shiraz back to the secular world after overdosing on… red wine. I promise to tell that story one day in this blog.
~Tabriz / Tehran / Kashan / Esfahan / Yazd / Kerman / Shiraz, Iran

Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah on Naqsh-e Jahan Imam Square, Esfahan

Woman in traditional dress in Abyaneh village

Kaluts sand formations near Kerman

Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah, Esfahan

Masjed-e Agha Bozorg, Kashan

3-9 May: Alan and I fly to Chennai for a couple of days of saree shopping before continuing to the chief gateway of the Andaman Islands, Port Blair, and a more remote island of Havelock. Albeit a part of India, the islands actually lie and look much nearer Burma. We see many an Indian newly wed couple on honeymoon, consume an enormous amount of seafood and never fail to be amazed by the ever-so-Indian casual rubbish dumping habit even in such an idyllic location. Back on the mainland, we also take a day trip to Puducherry, France’s former stronghold in India – which proves decidedly too hot to bear at the height of the hot season in May.
~Chennai / Andaman Islands / Puducherry, India

Triplicane street scene, Chennai

Sunrise on Havelock

Paradise turquoise beach on Havelock

A quick bite on Havelock

23-25 May: May proves to be a couple’s getaway month for Alan and I: having returned from India recently, we promptly jet off to the Greek island of Angistri not far from Athens. Albeit small, the island somehow fits in about a thousand people in permanent population. Unbelievably, it becomes my 34th Greek island and Alan’s very first. The introduction to cosy tavernas, ouzo on a hot day and chilled island living – all the things I love above Greece – proves successful, and Alan talks about buying a house on a Greek island ever since.
~Angistri, Greece

Fresh octopus and squid in Skala

Church of Agioi Anargyroi, Skala

View of Mesochori from Metochi

Sunset from Skala

20-21 June: I make a number of trips to Latvia in 2015, but this one is particularly memorable. Alan is again by my side as we visit my relatives in the port city of Ventspils in the west of the country. My family certainly do their best convincing my poor English fiancé of their crazy side: endless shots of vodka alternate serious spanking with birch branches in the Russian sauna while my aunt’s dog nibbles on my cousin’s tortoise amid all the fun (the tortoise survives with barely a scratch). No family photos here but do take a look at this shot from Riga where Alan and I enjoyed a professional photo shoot.
~Riga / Ventspils, Latvia

28 June – 2 July: Within only three months, I return to Georgia on a much more versatile work trip than before. I visit three hydroelectric sites in the regions of Racha and Svaneti, with a stopover in Georgia’s second largest city, Kutaisi. The highest inhabited area in the Caucasus, Svaneti leaves me speechless – though I never manage to get far enough to see the highest peaks – and entertained at the numerous anecdotes Georgians have mastered about Svans, local residents. This is likely among my last visits to Georgia in professional capacity as the country has been transferred to another team, and I lament the imminent loss as I wave Georgia goodbye from my plane window.
~Tbilisi / Kutaisi / Svaneti, Georgia

My favourite view of Tbilisi Old Town

Horse grazing in the Racha region

Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi

View down the Darchi river in the Svaneti region

4-5 July: Having visited the island of Guernsey a couple of years ago, this time Alan and I descend on its bigger counterpart, Jersey. Best known as a tax haven, Jersey comes out as somewhat more developed and therefore less exciting than Guernsey. We inadvertently manage to plan our trip to coincide with the closing of the Island Games 2015 – yes, believe it or not, there is a regular international sporting event where only residents of islands compete! We spot jerseys from the remotest corners of the world – the Falkland Islands and St. Helena included – and learn to recognise the flags of the Isle of Wight and Gotland. Not forgetting, of course, to explore as much of Jersey as we can.
~Bailiwick of Jersey

Plemont Bay beach, Jersey

MP2 fortification tower and Corbiere lighthouse, Jersey

Corbiere Point and lighthouse, Jersey

11-12 July: I use Stavanger as a convenient hub for exploring Lysefjord, my favourite fjord in Norway distinct for its hazy blue colour. It is my second visit - the first time, in 2011, I hiked to Preikestolen – and I venture further afield to the Kjerag mountain. The hike is both easier and harder than I thought (don’t ask!) and of course I refuse to have a photo of me taken on the Kjeragbolten boulder at the end of the hike. Wedged in the rock, Kjeragbolten looms about 1km over Lysefjord’s surface with pretty much nothing inbetween. My stomach still sinks heavily just thinking about it.
~Stavanger / Kjerag, Norway

Stavanger harbour on a rare sunny day

Sheer drop from Kjerag towards Lysefjord

Kjeragbolten and two shamelessly brave Norwegians

7-9 August: I unexpectedly receive a bonus day off and use it up immediately to buy the cheapest ticket I could find – to Skopje, FYR Macedonia. The facelift the city has recently received – featuring massive statues of Greek heritage figures and tacky mock baroque facades – leaves me with mixed feelings, and I escape to the Mavrovo National Park. The place is better known for its skiing, and the summer is decidedly a great time to visit to avoid crowds of tourists. I hike 20km from Mavrovo village to Galicnik and do not meet a single other hiker on my way – only lone shepherds accompanied by their herds and angry dogs. The nature here is superb, as are the wine, the fresh vegetables and the welcoming locals. I am a fan!
~Skopje / Mavrovo, FYR Macedonia

Predictably, “Macedonian salad” – in Mavrovo

Galicnik village – a relieving sight after 6 hours of hiking

Old St. Nicholas’ Church in Mavrovo

Macedonia Square and “Warrior on a Horse” statue, Skopje

18-19 August: It’s that time of year again: I travel to Slovenia, my favourite country to visit for work after Georgia. The visit goes very much the way they always do, starting with the capital city of Ljubljana and ending in the coal-fired power plant I am diligently monitoring. The views from the top of the main building are as fabulous as always and the food at the end of the working day – absolutely exquisite. Slovenia truly is one of Europe’s best kept secrets.
~Ljubljana, Slovenia

Town best known for its coal-fired power plant

29-31 August: I am well known for my passion to travel long distances for mere weekends, but this time Alan catches the bug, too: we recycle our (still valid) Indian visas and visit Mumbai for literally a couple of days. In the city Alan and I both love, we get spoilt rotten with a panoramic view of the Gateway of India and an outdoor pool at the Taj Hotel. We also shop to distraction for textiles and clothes, catch up with dear friends, the Mehtas, and get a flavour of wealthy parts of the city at a spontaneous birthday celebration of another friend. Just enough activities to make a weekend!
~Mumbai, India

Relaxing on Oval Maidan

Marine Drive and beach view

Market vendor

The (promised) Taj Hotel outdoor pool

19-27 September: This is the first time I have my Greece holiday in September rather than the summer; I plan a circular trip encompassing four islands: Kos, Nisyros, Tilos and Kalymnos. I avoid the popular Kos as much as I can and leave within hours. The other three islands are fantastically different, each offering their special side. I admire the spectacular volcano caldera and lush vegetation on Nisyros, feel breath-taken by the eerie abandoned Mikro Chorio village and superb hill paths on Tilos and am amazed by the hospitality of the chattiest islanders I have ever met in Greece, on Kalymnos. As a bonus, I also discover the flipside of the offseason: a true Aegean storm that lasts for 24 hours, accompanied by uninterrupted lightning, torrential rain and thunder. Needless to say next year I get back on the summer schedule.
~Nisyros / Tilos / Kalymnos, Greece

Prophet Ilias chapel on the highest point of Nisyros

Caldera, Nisyros’ most famous sight

Abandoned Mikro Chorio village on Tilos

Eccentric (and kind) shop owner in Vathy, Kalymnos

Tourists sailing to Telendos islet from Kalymnos

Boats moored in Myrties, Kalymnos

3-4 October: Unable to wait till next summer, I return to Greece within a week to dedicate a second weekend to Kerkyra (Corfu) in the Ionian Sea – I hardly had enough time to see the island on my first weekend there last year. The island is still in the holiday mode, and the sea is pleasantly warm. I visit scenic villages of Palaiokastritsa and Lakones, swim off beautiful beaches of Liapades and Agios Stefanos, and get appalled by heavy development of what must once have been a quaint settlement of Sidari. Oh, and Corfu Town – the island’s largest city – is as pretty as ever.
~Kerkyra (Corfu), Greece

Spectacular view towards Palaiokastritsa from Lakones village

Agios Stefanos beach

Authentic Greek salad in Sidari

Corfu Town harbour before sunset

5-6 October: It feels shameful to complain about a free trip to Dubrovnik, but this one is with my colleagues. Forty of us descend on the city for two days of social activities which do not seem to end: we tailgate a guide bearing our company logo around Dubrovnik and strip down to our swimwear on the Elaphiti Islands as we take our first corporate dip together. Thankfully, it all comes to an end eventually.
~Dubrovnik, Croatia

Šipan island harbour

View towards Franjo Tudman Bridge from Lapad, Dubrovnik

Lopud island’s promenade and beach

15-25 October: Undeterred by the hefty price tag, I travel to Bhutan for 10 days. The only way to visit Bhutan for westerners like me is on an organised tour: I find constant presence of a guide restrictive but Bhutan is impressive enough to compensate. From Thimphu – the only capital city in the world without a single traffic light – I travel to the fertile Punakha valley, the Phobjikha valley famous for nesting black-necked cranes, the cultural heartland of Bumthang and Paro, the gateway to superb nearby sites including Bhutan’s most celebrated sight, Tiger’s Nest Monastery. My absolute highlight is the tsechu (festival) in Bumthang featuring loud drums and masked dancers in bright costumes – something completely out of this world.
~Thimphu / Punakha / Phobjikha / Bumthang / Paro, Bhutan

Tsechu at Jakar Dzong, Bumthang

Young participant of Jakar Tsechu, Bumthang

Prayer flags along the Taktshang Goemba hike

Trongsa Dzong, Trongsa

Young girl smiling from a car, Bumthang

7-8 November: Alan and I finally visit Edinburgh together, and the city duly rewards us for our loyalty: it pours pretty much non-stop! Weather failing us dramatically, we do nothing but wander up and down the Royal Mile and meet my friends and their offspring – oh, and enjoy a fabulous dinner at the Skerries restaurant near Murrayfield.
~Edinburgh, Scotland

View towards Scott Monument

Water of Leith on a clear evening

View of rained-down Edinburgh from Calton Hill

28-29 November: I book the flight to Sicily on a whim earlier in the year and am determined to use all the time I have to explore the largest island of the Mediterranean. Palermo turns out to have many pretty corners – and even more shady ones – while the popular seaside town of Cefalù is blissfully quiet at the end of November. And Sicily even has a rail link! Cringing at the messy surroundings, I nevertheless regret I cannot stay longer.
~Palermo / Cefalù, Sicily, Italy

Palermo Cathedral

Random street café in Palermo

Cefalù town and beach

Cefalù rooftops from above

Here goes to many more travels and adventures in 2016!

Happy New Year!
Happy New Year!
Happy New Year!