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This has once again meant that this blog has not received the time it perhaps deserves. In the grand scheme of things though, it may well be that 10-12 posts a year (down from my personal peak of 50 in 2010) is exactly the balance it needs given my other commitments. Time will only show.
To continue the tradition developed in 2011 and 2012, I have recapped the highlights of my departing year in pictures. While these are all related to travel, stay tuned for my annual newsletter for more personal life developments in 2013.
1-6 January: Same as a year ago, I welcome the new year in India. This time I find myself 1,600 km south of my last year’s new year venue: the state of Kerala where the city of Kochi celebrates the calendar change by burning a (rather ugly) massive effigy of Santa Claus. Only ashes remain when I continue my journey around Kerala, visiting the intensely green tea plantations of Munnar, Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary with its stunning elephants, the serene backwaters of Alleppey and the bustling Kovalam beach. Everything culminates in a shopping spree in Mumbai before my flight back to London – truly India never lets me down.
9 February: It has been eight years since I last visited the Netherlands. I rush to rectify this, paying brief visits to The Hague, Scheveningen and Delft. It is my trip to Amsterdam though that stands out most, as the city welcomes me with the heaviest snowfall I will see this entire winter season. I forget that I have come to Amsterdam to see Anne Frank’s house – the queues are prohibitively long, too – and snap away at the playful snowflakes.
2-3 March: An old tradition lives on as I spend the first weekend of spring in Spain. The Las Fallas festival is in full swing in atmospheric Valencia. During thunderous explosions of the Mascletà, I think a war might have broken out while I was asleep; it all ends up very much peaceful though. I continue to Tarragona where a friend has already planned a sightseeing trip to Castell Monestir d’Escornalbou in Catalonia. Spring is in the air! The weekend flies by all too quickly.
~Valencia / Tarragona, SPAIN
16-17 March: This is my first accompanied trip in years; I won’t even mention by a male person. Predictably, the choice falls on Paris. I will never understand why so many people consider it romantic, but eccentric and captivating it certainly is. I climb endless stairs to Arc de Triomphe, the gentleman in question holds the umbrella over me as I take pictures – the scene is blissful in its peculiar way. Not even the recurring hail and icy wind mar things.
23-24 March: I have been trying to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp for years; the expectations are high but the reality is even more powerful. Fresh snow having covered the earth lavishly the night before and the sun shining in perfectly blue skies, the site could not have looked more idyllic – bar the “Vorsicht” signs around and the notorious “Arbeit macht frei” shield overhead. Deeply moved, I spend the following day in Krakow to recover: the city’s fascinating Kazimierz district, Wawel Royal Castle, wintery main square and incredible Wieliczka salt mine – one of the most unearthly sights I have seen to date – almost make me forget the sharply negative temperatures. Almost.
~Krakow / Auschwitz, POLAND
30 March – 14 April: It is my first big adventure of the year and what better way to celebrate spring than with plenty of cherry blossom in Japan? In 16 days, I dash from sleepless Tokyo to mountainous Takayama, blossoming Kanazawa, serene Miyajima, sombre Hiroshima, unexpectedly versatile Nagasaki, peripheral Kagoshima, overcrowded Kyoto, spiritual Koyasan, picture-pretty Hakone and seaside Kamakura. Deep breath – did I mention these were only a few of the places I visited? Personal highlights include crossing paths with an authentic geisha in Kyoto, attending a Buddhist fire ceremony in Koyasan and photographing the sunset over Mount Fuji in Kamakura. Japan was fabulous beyond words – let’s hope my planned trip to its Okinawa island works out in 2014.
~Tokyo / Kanazawa / Hiroshima / Nagasaki / Kyoto / Koyasan / Hakone / Kamakura, JAPAN
27-28 April: I should perhaps start by shaking uncontrollably and screaming to the whole world that I bumped into Novak Djokovic in Monaco. Except that was by no means the only highlight of this visit to the French Riviera – both Nice and Cannes are worth a trip in their own right. I especially recommend walking up the Castle Hill in Nice for a panoramic view over this seaside city.
~Nice / Cannes, FRANCE and Monte Carlo, MONACO
4-6 May: Allegedly the outermost region of the European Union, the Portuguese island of Madeira lies as far as a thousand kilometres from the European continent. It is certainly not a forgotten place though: the main city of Funchal looks as developed as Lisbon, massive cruise ships make daily stops in the harbour and brisk construction works aspire to turn the island’s perilous pebbly beaches into a shielded sandy paradise. Shocked by the abundance of activity in a place I have imagined much more tranquil, I rush off to Porto Moniz in the far northwest. It is calm enough and Madeira is restored in my eyes; I doubt I will be back in a heartbeat though.
11-12 May: Just a couple of months after Paris, I am back on the Eurostar, this time headed for Belgium. Somehow I had imagined the country to excel in cider, but there is none to be found anywhere. Thankfully, Belgian dark beer fully compensates – I am not surprised to see a very merry monk laughing off bottle stickers of one brand.
~Gent / Oostende, BELGIUM
June / July: The first two months of the summer prove fruitful as, foreign lands aside, I embark on a little discovery of our very own UK shores. The journey takes me from “bugger” Bognor to white cliffs of Dover, a sleeper train to Penzance and – yes, really – the “Brighton of the North”, Scarborough. A clueless Londoner in me is pleased to discover so many worthy places elsewhere in the UK.
~Bognor Regis / Dover / Penzance / Scarborough, UK
10-13 June: It has been a long break in my business travels, but the one that comes along makes it worth the wait. I spend four days zooming around Cairo – mostly in and out of offices and helplessly stuck in traffic, I finally manage to meet a friend, Ahmed, and set off for an exploration of nighttime Cairo. The Khan el-Khalili market is as bustling as the Tahrir Square is empty; not for long though – the sense of the looming revolution is already in the air and Cairo is abuzz. Needless to say none of us linger too long.
15-23 June: Summer in the life of anjči very much means Greece. I make my escapade early in the season and enjoy the wonderful tranquillity on the Cycladic island of Milos. The cosy port of Adamas, the pretty Plaka with its celebrated sunsets, the picture-pretty cliffs of Kleftiko, the surreal Sarakiniko beach with its lunar landscapes, the undiscovered left “wing” of the butterfly shaped Milos, the stunning Tsigrado, Fyriplaka and Provatas beaches – they all speak for themselves. Milos may well have been my best Greek island experience to date. Don’t forget to visit the much smaller (but no less prettier) nearby island of Kimolos, too.
~Milos / Kimolos, GREECE
29-30 June: I leave Greece behind to return to London, but not for long – my summer soon continues in sunny Malta. Together with the same trusty fiere who accompanied me to Paris and Gent, we rush through Malta’s key attractions: medieval fortifications of Mdina, cobbled streets of Valletta and colourful fishermen’s boats of Marsaxlokk. We even find the former Royal Navy Hospital of Mtarfa where my companion was born many years ago – the building is used as a school these days but little seems to have changed since the British times.
~St Julians / Mdina / Valletta / Marsaxlokk, MALTA.
11-14 July: “So much for not planning to return to India so quickly then”, I hear myself say as, one fine Wednesday evening, I board a Mumbai-bound plane. There is ample reason to return though – my friend Nandini is getting married in Bangalore! I enjoy dancing in my only saree so much that I get two more made, while the rest of the shopping barely fits in my travel pack. I think I may be well equipped for a year’s worth of Indian clothes; Bangalore itself is nothing to die for though.
20 July: Time has flown by all too quickly. After fretting about the fact for a good few months, I suddenly turn 30 one windy Saturday in Riga. Fancy celebrations aren’t really for me, and my mother and the same old travel companion provide all the entertainment. Highlights include indulging in a whole glassful of kvas on the Saulkrasti beach and devouring pork ribs in a Latvian country restaurant. Life will never be the same again.
1-4 September: I expect absolutely nothing from my few days in Beijing – after all, the city is merely a stopover on the way somewhere else. Perhaps this is exactly why the Chinese capital wins me over almost instantly. Instead of dull concrete blocks and polluted streets, I discover beautiful Chinese gardens in Jingshan Park, the mesmerizingly historic Tiananmen Square, the bustling Nanluoguxiang hutong and the vast walkable areas around Summer Palace and Kunming Lake. Not to mention that the impressive Great Wall of China is just a stone throw away – and that Yashow market with its top floor foot massages is always there should the walking prove too much. The smog is seriously despicable though.
5-13 September: Beijing bears little resemblance to communism as I know it, and I head to the place where the ideology has stood still for over 60 years. I land in Pyongyang and spend the following week exploring the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), better known as North Korea. A lot has been written about it in this blog; the highlights include the Arirang Mass Games with their tens of thousands performers, the National Day military parade swarming in flags and Kims’ images, our “Alcatraz” of a hotel isolated to an island in the Taedong river and the demilitarised zone sealing the border between North and South Korea for decades. A week-long abstinence from the internet is healthy for all of us, too.
~Pyongyang / Nampo / Pyongsong / Kaesong, DPRK
23-29 September: September is a busy month: having barely adjusted from Beijing to British time, I backtrack three hours to Georgia. This turns out to be my most memorable work trip to date. Besides visiting three construction sites (arguably an acquired taste), I explore the capital of Tbilisi, the mountainous Stepantsminda in the Kazbegi region, the wine country of Kakheti and the remote, hydro-rich Paravani. The food, the wine and the people are my favourite in the whole world; Georgia is truly the closest I have yet been to paradise.
~Tbilisi / Stepantsminda / Kakheti / Paravani, GEORGIA
5-6 October: If you think Guernsey is nothing but a tax haven, you couldn’t be more mistaken. The UK-controlled island in the English Channel boasts history far disproportionate to its small size and offers numerous exploring opportunities. Its capital, St Peter Port, is a pretty settlement with a picturesque harbour and lovely pubs selling Rocquette, a delicious local cider. It is the omnipresent observation towers from the days of the German occupation during World War II that captivate me most though.
7-9 October: On a business trip to Budapest, I escape the hotel one morning for a quick dash around both sides of the Danube. The views from the Royal Palace on the Buda side are so picturesque that I end up running late for work. A proper weekend trip may be in order soon.
12-13 October: It drizzles endlessly through my weekend escapade to Bordeaux; my return flight is delayed, I miss the last train from Gatwick and take hours getting home, eventually reaching there in the early hours of the morning. In-between though, I discover what is probably my favourite French city to date – perhaps its distinct British feel is to blame. The celebrated wine helps, too.
7-8 December: I arrive in Stockholm convinced I will spend the next two days exploring the city’s Christmas markets and completing whatever sightseeing I missed on my previous 20+ visits. Instead, I find myself drawn into late night conversations, hour-long coffees and replays of past years’ Melodifestivalen (Swedish national Eurovision selection) – the company of good friends is indeed superior to any sightseeing.
21-27 December: Finally my last holiday of the year arrives: just off two long-haul international flights, I am already lining up for that dream sunrise shot at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. The city itself has little to offer but I keep busy and visit Treak village and floating villages on the Tonlé Sap Lake nearby. My journey continues with a glimpse into the recent tragic past of the capital city, Phnom Penh, and a bit of beach time in Sihanoukville. There is so much more to Cambodia that I struggle to leave – but Laos awaits next.
~Siem Reap / Phnom Penh / Sihanoukville, CAMBODIA
27-31 December: Of the three Southeast Asian countries on my itinerary, Laos falls into my mind most. It may not have the temples of Cambodia or the full moon parties of Thailand – what it has aplenty though is beautiful rugged scenery, the caves on the mighty Mekong river, the elegant sinh skirts worn by local women (I am so impressed I have four made for myself) and tourists decidedly in fewer numbers than its neighbours. Vientiane must be the world’s quietest capital – it would indeed make Pyongyang look like a bustling megalopolis – and the northern city of Luang Prabang is wonderfully pretty. I shall certainly be back – if only for more sinhs!
~Vientiane / Luang Prabang, LAOS
31 December: I land in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on the last day of the departing year and immediately know it was the right choice. Fireworks begin hours before the actual midnight and what looks like a major street eating party is already in full swing around 6pm. I gladly join in; in the end it almost seems a good idea to shoot some the fireworks ahead of time, so many they are! Udaipur still holds the lead among my New Year celebrations, but the arrival of 2014 is, too, wonderfully memorable. Have a good one!
~Chiang Mai, THAILAND
Thanks for scrolling down my year! Read my 2013 Newsletter where the main events of 2013 are described in greater detail.
HAPPY NEW YEAR TO YOU ALL!