Updated: Feb 10, 2019
I don’t think I travel all that much and yet, I guess, itchy feet are in my blood.
One of my grandfathers was a driver and one of my grandmothers was in charge of overseeing a bunch of construction sites around Ukraine –
I often joined them on their journeys to work, when spending summers in sunny Ukraine.
Added to this, until the age of 14, I lived in a remote town in the Arctic Circle of Russia, travelling over 6000 kilometres every spring and autumn to get to southern Ukraine for summer holidays and back.
This was a given, the norm – flying for 4 hours to Moscow and then spending almost 24hrs on a train.
Then between each of the grandmas' houses - 6-7 hours in a car (back then - it takes nearer 3 hours now).
We then moved to live in Holland, I then came to live in Scotland and travelling has just never been a chore - it’s a way of visiting, a way of reconnecting, a way of adventuring.
I swear these journeys have given me the resilience I value so much.
As a self-confessed travel addict, I thought it would be fitting to do a brief round of the most surprising places I have visited to date!
My husband and I thrive on discovering new places and are slightly obsessed with ticking off countries in the app ‘been’.
In 2017 we visited 8 countries, 3 of which were new to us both – in 2018 we ‘only’ managed to tick off 4 (albeit, 2 of which were day trips, but they still count!), 2019 has 4 planned so far, but fingers crossed for some surprise adventuring to come our way!
Due to family circumstances (and convenience), most of the places we visit are fairly ‘local’ – based in and around Europe.
Luckily, we’ve a few more to go before we run out and need to go long-haul every time ‘been’ needs updating.
So over the past few years, we have visited a lot of beautiful countries, cities, villages, towns, nature reserves, mountains, lakes (the list goes on…) and some have been a little underwhelming (I will not name those, as I feel like a brat when I do), but others have been a revelation!
I would like to share the revelations with you today.
Number one because it was the biggest surprise and because it is the one that always comes to mind when I think about our travels over the past few years. Iceland IS magnificent.
It is a land of fire and ice – quite literally, the landscape of trolls and an absolute argument for paganism if I ever saw one!
The geysers, the fjords, the waterfalls, the glaciers, the volcanos, the peaks and the caves...
The food (with one exception: see below), the friendly locals, the horses, the wool, the kaffi...
The Blue Lagoon natural 'spa' experience was a particular highlight for us both - as well as renting a car and driving as much as we could along the ring road. The place was a revelation because we went a few years ago and back then, not many people we knew had been and there didn't appear to be as much buzz around it as there is now. So, I suppose it would be fair to say, we half-expected to see a remote isle, covered in little else other than ice and modest moss, what we got was so far removed from it, it blew our minds.
One for the ‘AVOID’ list in Iceland, however is: trying hakarl – the rotten shark snack. It is revolting and believe me when I say that. I am a great believer in trying local cuisines when exploring different countries, but this is one exception I recommend everyone makes. Not even when washed down with the local spirit – Brennivin – does it become any more bearable. The taste stays with you forever – avoid!
Having said this, we were told that the locals happily serve this up as a snack on a casual Friday night get-together with friends – similar to how you might offer some Doritos with dip. Mind boggles.
When we went: end of March
Where we stayed: Odinsve Hotel
Do: hire a car to visit the Golden Circle and make time for the Blue Lagoon
Don't: eat hakarl
Bottom line is: we knew it would be amazing, but Venice is like nothing else.
A city completely free of cars, where even DHL delivers on a gondola (well, a boat, but let’s romanticize). We spent three full days in Venice and every day we left in the morning and came back to our hotel – exhausted – close to midnight. We wandered the streets with and without the map, we took a trip on a gondola (a must!) with a singing gondolieri, we misidentified the Bridge of Sighs, had pricey but very worthwhile lunch and drinks at Café Florian in Piazza San Marco, wasted time going to Harry’s Bar (overpriced and underwhelming).
When we went: end of March
Where we stayed: I actually can’t remember the name of the hotel, but it was outside of Venice itself! So every morning and night we took a short shuttle provided by the hotel – this was actually a great way of ensuring we stayed out on the streets the entire day, without the temptation of heading back to rest our feet (and for a nap!)
Do: bring comfortable footwear – I had to pop into one of the gift shops and ask for Sellotape to wrap around my feet as all the pharmacies were shut on a Sunday and my feet were in shreds!
Don't: presume. We were lucky to avoid any tourist trap restaurants, but I’ve heard a few reports of people ordering ‘specials’ not on the menu and being charged an arm and a leg – I’ve also been caught out in Milan – paying 100EURO for two salads and two juices.
We were so fortunate to be invited to a beautiful wedding of two of our friends in Slovakia.
True to our obsession, we planned the trip visiting as many countries as we could. We dropped our toddler off at grandparents’ in Holland on the way to Slovakia and... flew into Krakow, Poland first.
Krakow was lovely, but not quite on this list so I’ll skip our adventures there (I’ll just mention that if you fancy it - go!). We drove across the mountains to Slovakia and spent amazing time there. The drive itself was mesmerising, it was October, so all the trees were golden yellow - in shades like I’ve never seen anywhere else. The mountains we drove across were stunningly picturesque too - I’d recommend travelling to Slovakia this way for the views alone!
We stayed at AquaCity, which is a large hotel with a vast selection of water-based treats on its grounds. There are a number of saunas, steam rooms, jacuzzis, in- and outdoors swimming pools. Let’s just say: we chilled!
There was a UNESCO Heritage Site - Spiš Castle just down the road from the city we stayed at, which we visited on a day trip.
I bet Slovakia offers different experiences in other areas and definitely if you choose to visit the capital - Bratislava, but our adventure to this part of the country surprised and amazed us both.
When we went: October
Where we stayed: AquaCity, Poprad
Do: pop over to Poland for a quick visit during your stay – we actually flew into Krakow, which was a lovely city too!
Don't: forget to pay for the toll if you hire a car and use the roads that require it - it’s very easy to arrange, don’t get caught out.
4. St. Petersburg
Having only been once for a long weekend, I’m longing to go back and on my next visit, I’m bringing the entire family with me - because places like this MUST be enjoyed together!
Fun fact, I went to meet up with old school mates on a class reunion, but was determined to cram some culture into the visit! I was very fortunate with the weather, it stayed dry and sunny and we were able to enjoy long walks around the city, admiring architecture, taking breaks to have pelmeni and champagne and spent the nights in some fantastic karaoke clubs. Russians love karaoke and many places facilitate near-full on performances for the willing songbirds.
One of the days we took the ferry to Petergof, which I would absolutely recommend - you can easily spend a full day there, admiring architecture, getting lost in the parks and, of course, visiting the fountains.
When we went: August
Where we stayed: Courtyard by Marriott Vasilievsky
Do: stay up till dawn to watch the bridges
Don't: forget to wrap up - St. Petersburg’s weather is a bit notorious for being grey and rainy, so be prepared!
Have I mentioned we’re obsessed with cramming as many countries in our holidays as possible?..
On our last holiday - to Dubrovnik - we couldn’t resist the obvious choices for day trips - Montenegro and Bosnia, which were mere couple of hours drive from where we were staying!
Bosnia happened first - we visited the quaint, but beautiful Mostar, with its renowned bridge (most=bridge in Bosnian)!
Now, here’s the thing - within about 30 minutes of arriving, I passed out. I was 6 months pregnant, the heat was unbearable and the tour guide seemed to pick the sunniest spots to tell his tales. And even though this happened, I still absolutely loved our visit!
Having made quick recovery, had the most delicious glass of Cola in my life and promised my husband that I will not be falling over again, we set off on our merry explorations.
The area around the famous bridge is a cobbled market with many places to eat. Every so often, a young man will leap off the bridge, into the ice cold water (once he has collected enough encouragement cash from the public ;)), much to spectators’ delight! I was sooooo disappointed that we had JUST missed seeing this - I sprinted down the steps to try catch the spectacle, but didn’t make it by mere seconds. Our tour guide told us that these young men practice the jump from very young age and that the most dangerous thing about this activity isn’t actually the jump itself, but the sudden change in temperature as the body enters the chilly stream.
Can you tell we had an eventful day?
Topped off with a delicious lunch, Mostar, Bosnia became more than just a tick on our list and I would love to explore some more!
When we went: June