So, there was this very brief period when I decided I might want to ‘settle down’ and I ended up staying in Bristol, England for a whole eighteen months (although I managed to have three different jobs and live in three different houses during that time!). It didn’t end well and I quickly went back to my old lifestyle of working half the year and travelling for the rest.
To keep my travelling dreams alive during my ‘settlement period’, I set myself a goal of visiting twelve different countries every month for twelve months i.e. the whole of 2016. I decided they didn’t have to be new countries, as that would be too difficult seeing as I’d visited much of Europe already. I had a full time job, with the normal two days off a week and limited holiday time, so my challenge would need to fit in around work schedules, meaning preferably short flight times and from my local airport in Bristol.
So, where did I go?
January, two days in very cold Oslo, Norway
I’d never been to any of the Scandi countries before and I was keen to visit them on on my one year adventure. I think I chose Oslo as my first destination because the flights were very, very cheap, despite having to travel to Gatwick airport. The flight was virtually empty and a few people were asked to move towards the back to redistribute the weight.
I arrived into the bitter cold with snow on the ground. My weekend in Oslo quickly turned into a coffee shop tour of Oslo, hopping from one warm cafe to another, sampling the local cinnamon buns.The Scandinavian (actually, Danish) concept of Hygge has become very popular in the UK now, translated as coziness it’s all about being in a warm, cosy place and enjoying the best things in life. For me that is definitely coffee and cake in a cute cafe.
In between Hygge moments, I managed to walk out to the Bygdøy peninsula to visit the Viking Ship museum, as well as enjoying the 200 sculptures in Vigeland Sculpture Park which show various human emotions and life stages.
February, two days getting to know Gothenburg, Sweden
Before going to Gothenburg I’d read about the food truck scene and (bizarrely) was really excited about trying fried herring, mashed potato and lingon berry sauce. Before even checking into my hotel I made a beeline to the recommended food truck and ordered my lunch. It did not disappoint!
Gothenburg was a really cool city to roam around, from the waterfront area with canals, old shipyards and the Fish Church to trendy district Haga full of great cafes and vintage shops. I also took a day trip out to Gothenburg Archipelago, hopping on a tram from the city centre and transferring onto a ferry for a short ride to the southern islands to visit Vrango with its cool holiday cottages. And of course, coffee and cake in a cafe. It’s not that I’m obsessed with coffee and cake (although I am), it’s also the sheer joy of people watching.
March, a week chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland
Iceland was my treat to myself after quitting a job I was miserable in and having a week before starting a new job (that I would later be miserable in too). It was at a time when there were cheap flights from Bristol to the USA via Iceland, so I got a really good deal. The accommodation was so expensive though, even with staying in youth hostels.
I would have loved to hire a car to see Iceland independently, but I was nervous about driving on my own on icy roads in addition to the cost. To be honest, the guided day trips weren’t so bad. Once in Iceland there’s numerous day trips to choose from, which pick you up at your hotel. I stayed three nights in Reykjavik and did a Golden Circle tour and a trip up the west coast to the Snaefell Peninsula. The former is the most popular day trip from the capital, taking in some pretty cool sights from waterfalls to geysers in a geothermal area. I even got to stand on the spot where the Eurasian and American tectonic plates meet here and where the oldest parliament in the world was formed in 930 AD.
I also took a public bus to the town of Vik where I stayed overnight in a gorgeous hostel to get a look at the southern coastline. I walked along the black sand Reynisfjara Beach (apparently the best beach in Iceland) and hiked up a snow covered cliff. Back in Reykjavik for my last night before an early flight, I decided at the last minute to take a evening trip out of town in the hope of seeing the Northern Lights. The photo above was taken by the tour leader on a long exposure. What I saw was less dramatic but still great – a green glow that got brighter and brighter and spread across the sky, before fading and starting all over again.
April, a very rushed one night stay in Mallorca, Spain
Having just started a new and very demanding job, I needed a really quick getaway in April. Skyscanner’s flights to ‘everywhere’ became my favourite online tool. Just type in the desired departure airport and travel dates and it brings up all flights by country destination in order of price. Bristol to Mallorca for £55 return was perfect. I left early on the Saturday and flew back late on the Sunday.
Arriving into Palma I took a bus across the island, hopping off in Alcúdia to explore the medieval towns with its 14th century town walls, built to protect the town from marauding pirates (it didn’t work – many inhabitants fled the city after repeated attacks). I stayed the night at the beach, enjoying a glass of wine on my hotel balcony and breakfast at a beachside cafe in the morning.
After breakfast I still had the whole day before catching my flight. I headed back to Palma and caught a vintage wooden train down to Soller, a picturesque journey through the mountains, over countless bridges and through thirteen tunnels. Although it was only two days and one night away, when you pack a lot in it actually feels like you’ve been away for ages. Never let a shortage of time put you off going away!
May, a quick train trip across Switzerland
This was a fairly complicated trip for just two nights away. I flew into Geneva in the early morning, caught a train to Bern and spent a few hours exploring the capital city of Switzerland. Then I hopped back on the train to Lake Lucerne where I stayed overnight and spent an enjoyable day walking the lakeshore. I then carried on to Basel, to pick up a cheap flight home. So in one short trip I managed to visit four Swiss locations!
The medieval city of Bern was a great place to explore. The Aare river snakes around the base of the town, with great views from the city terraces. Across the water is the city Bear Park with its family of bears who even swim in their own section of the river. Basel, on the Rhine, is Switzerlands oldest university town and I found the architecture on the market square stunning, with red sandstone town hall and gothic cathedral.
June, five days cycling around Denmark
My friend Paula, an English friend who defected some years ago taking up residency in New Zealand (and who can blame her,) was back in Europe for a short visit. Us being us, we decided that meeting in England was far too boring and so a cycling holiday in Denmark was born. I have no idea why, as the most either of us had cycled before was down to the shops and back.
We flew separately into Copenhagen where we stayed one night before renting a couple of basic bikes and headed north, enjoying a quick peak at the famous Little Mermaid statue along the way. Soon the city was far behind us and we were enjoying views of Sweden as we cycled up the coast towards Helsingor. I’d been in charge of planning the route and Paula chose the accommodation in each place. The first day was about five hours cycling, or so Google told me. Well, I don’t know if we are just very very slow at cycling, or if I messed up, but it was a lot further than five hours! We arrived very late, very tired and a bit wet after it started raining in the last couple of hours.
The next day began with cycling along sand dunes and catching a short ferry across Iseford at Hundested. The day ended with us on a train with our bicycles taking the easy route to Kalundborg for the night – we definitely need to work on our cycling stamina! We then cycled to Roskilde for our fourth night, and a triumphant return to Copenhagen on the fifth day, before flying out that evening.
July, two days exploring the Channel Islands, Britain
Okay, so the Channel Islands are a ‘British Crown dependency’ and so are technically part of Britain, but I decided that they definitely counted as a ‘new country’ for the year (and it’s my challenge, so I decide the rules). I flew into Guernsey late in the evening and stayed one night, before catching a ferry across to Sark, the smallest of the islands located 80 miles from the English coast and only 24 miles from France. No cars are allowed on the island, although I saw quite a few tractors.
I walked all over the island exploring, clambering up and down steep paths and steps to reach little bays with names like Derrible and Dixcart. At the remote Northern tip of the island lies the Buddhist rock carved in 1999 by a visiting Buddhist monk, while at the Southern end I found the dramatic La Coupée, a high ridge only 3m wide in places joining Little and Big Sark.
Back on Guernsey my evening flight was cancelled due to fog, a regular occurrence here apparently. The airline paid for a hotel, evening meal and breakfast, so I was more than happy to have another day on the islands and this time I toured the entire circumference of Guernsey, half on the bus and half following the well-marked Coastal Walk which is 39 miles in total.
August, two days eating my way around Helsinki, Finland
So when I looked up my Helsinki photos for this post, I realised they are pretty much all of food! I’m not sure why, because I definitely remember walking all over the city visiting pretty much every tourist site there is and even taking a ferry out to Suomenlinna fortress.
But on the topic of food, my favourite cafe in Helsinki was Regatta, housed in a cute little red cottage on the shoreline, with outdoor seating around an open fire where you can grill sausages bought in the cafe. It was a lovely walk there from the city centre with lots to see on the way. I was very taken with the dramatic Temppeliaukio rock church, hewn directly into solid rock with an ice-age crevice serving as its altar.
Back in the city, the Old Market Hall on the harbour front is the oldest indoor market in Finland and has all sorts of gourmet foodie delights, including a mountain of cinnamon buns and reindeer meat in all forms, including reindeer jerky. After a rather tasty salmon roll, I was ready to traipse across the city again to my next cafe stop!
September, two days in historic Beziers, France
I ended up in Beziers purely because there was a cheap flight from Bristol airport on my day off. I’d never heard of it before but I was pleasantly surprised. It’s in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in southern France and has rather impressive thirteenth century cathedral perched high above the town on a steep rock face.
The town was small but pleasant and I remember sitting at a pavement café, eating a delicious buttery croissant and classily dipping it into my café noir, watching the world go by. I explored the locks of the Canal du Midi on a pleasant afternoon walk and then took a bus out to the beach, a short journey away.
Unfortunately I managed to completely misread the timetable, not realising it wasn’t on summer hours anymore and missed the last bus back to Beziers. I had fun trying to use my GSCE French in a takeaway pizza place to get them to call me a taxi, which annoyingly set me back €50. But at least I got home!
October, a weekend visiting my friend in Berlin, Germany
This was probably my third or fourth time visiting my friend in Berlin and although I’ve never really done the tourist trail here, each time I visit I try and see one new sight. Luckily my friend has a couple of bicycles (the best way to get around Berlin!) and while she’s at work I can go off exploring.
I love wandering around the grounds of Charlottenburg Palace, Berlins largest palace. The grounds are free to explore and are very picturesque, with the Spree river running through them. There’s a popular cycle route along the river out to Spandau which I followed once, to have a look at Zitadelle Spandau, one of the best preserved renaissance fortresses in Europe with its Julius Tower being the oldest building in Berlin.
November, five days hanging out with my Mum in the Azores islands, Portugal
My parents moved to Portugal in 2002 (cunningly moving away while I was living and working in New Zealand for a year), so I know the country fairly well. However, I’d always fancied going to the Azores, which are two hours flying time from Lisbon straight out into the Atlantic.
Being volcanic islands, there’s some interesting topography as well as steaming hot pools and pineapple plantations. We stayed on Sao Miguel, the largest of the islands, and hired a car to make the most of our time there. First stop was the viewpoint at Vista do Rei (Kings Viewpoint) high above Sete Cidades lake. The lake is divided in two by a bridge and each side has a distinctly different colour, due to their vegetation.
On the other side of the island we found Terra Nostra park, a pretty 31 acre park full of botanical wonders, including over 300 types of fern.We had a great couple of hours exploring all the walkways discovering small lakes, grottoes, pagodas and most excitingly of all an animal topiary garden. But we were really there for a dip in the thermal water pool – its bright orange waters are 35º C to 40º C and we pretty much had it to ourselves.
December, three days in Prague after a week at German school
My last trip of the year was to Berlin (again) and Prague. I had a weeks holiday time to use by the end of the year, and as I’d been learning German all year at night school in Bristol, I decided to have a weeks language school in Berlin, then head over to Prague for the weekend to complete my challenge.
I did a really fun walking tour of the city with one of the several ‘free tour but tip us well’ tour agencies. They do this to drum up business for their paid tours. I did think about doing a beer tasting tour as well, but got worried it might end up being me and a stag group! Although that might have been interesting…
I’d been to Prague with my parents when I was seventeen, but couldn’t really remember it. As usual on my city breaks, I walked all over the city trying not to spend any money (except for on coffee and cake of course). I saw the 14th century Charles Bridge, the Powder Tower, the oldest still functioning Astronomical Clock in the world, the wavy Dancing House, the crawling babies on Kampa Island, Petrin Lookout tower… You name it, I probably walked past it at least once.
I also took a day trip outside the city by train to see the bone church at Kutna Hora. The Sedlec Ossuary contains the final resting place of over 40,000 people, but it’s the way the bones and skulls are presented that’s the main draw. Literally everything inside is made of bones – the wall decorations, the coat of arms, the huge chandelier… Apparently the chandelier contains every single bone from the human body.
So, 2016 was a busy year for me! My twelve months, twelve different countries challenge was great fun and really made me make the effort to keep the travelling spirit alive, despite working a full time job. So many people tell me they can’t do backpacking trips anymore as they just have three or four weeks vacation time each year. I say, why let that stop you? Forget doing the hoovering or going to the garden centre on the weekend – find a new country to explore instead!