“A Red Letter Day”: My 2023 travel year review
So, the end of the year is near… let’s write a wrap-up of the years travels. The traditional “between the years” 2023 travel year review. As the title suggests, it was a pretty good one!
And, in the words of my teenage favourites, the Pet Shop Boys, a “Red Letter Day” indeed! Actually, make that a year. My travel year mostly great, with a few minor hiccups.
Here is where I travelled in my 2023 travel year review and what it cost. My travel style is moderate budget, self-organized, straying into budget and luxury occasionally. I prefer family run private places over corporate business, and try to travel on public transport there I can but will continue to fly. I am pretty scared of flying to I will prefer direct flights, and if there is a decent rail or road alternative, I will always prefer this. I am well aware of the environmental implications, but try to make amends in other ways.
Table of Contents
January: Dive and Desert in Jordan
As is a good tradition here in Casa Golightly, January is for trips to catch a bit of winter sun. It didn’t quite go to plan back in 2021 when I planned to go to Israel but ended up in snowy and not-so-green Bursa but this year I wanted sun, I wanted it cheaply and I wanted to consolidate my elementary diving skills.
Aqaba is a relaxed town on the Jordanian Red Sea coast and Jordan’s only Red Sea resort. This being my second visit, I knew the lay of the land a bit and booked myself into a cheap place close to the public beach in a bit of a local tourist area – restaurants galore, relatively cheap prices, and only a ten-minute walk to the bazaar. My diving school, Petra Divers, was just 20m down the road from my hotel.
This constellation turned out to be super relaxing. Every morning at ten, I would roll up at the dive shop, have a coffee, wait for my instructor, then we’d set off on a ten minute drive to the dive sites – sometimes just us, sometimes with a fellow diver. I had the most patient relaxed diving instructor, and the gentle shore based entries took a way the slight fear of the deep I still had from my open water course. I did a PADI Advanced Open Water certification and within days, I was diving 30 metres deep without so much as batting an eyelid.
The way the school worked was nice – if there were uncertified novices, the instructor would take them for a dive, while I sat in the van, drinking tea and studying. This meant I usually had my instructor to myself on most dives. Once there was another student with Open Water certification, another time another dive instructor from overseas – with these dive buddies and the super instructor, diving was a breeze and great fun!
I even went as far as exploring the wreck of the iconic “Cedar Pride” even though I am a novice diver and not really into wrecks. I have written a full post on diving in Aqaba – feel free to read for more details!
In the afternoons, I would stroll round the bazaar, drink coffee then stroll along the beach and have a relaxed dinner. This was great for the five days I was there. But I also wanted to go to Wadi Rum. I had previously been there for a day trip and really wanted to spend a night in the desert!
So, I found a nice place to stay… far into the desert, took the JETT bus to Wadi Rum and was welcomed by a camp guide. Upon arrival in Wadi Rum Village, I received tea and the offerings of a private tour in the afternoon then a standard full day tour the next day together with whoever might turn up.
But first, I was taken to the camp, deep in Wadi Rum Protected Area, where I had the camp with its cool dining tent pretty much to myself. I viewed the beautiful desert scape, walked around, had a nap, then was taken to my private trip to the “White Desert”
Having a private tour was great, because we really did do some desert trails without seeing anyone for hours . I was able to drive the lovely vintage land cruiser for a bit… well, inofficially, as the guide would not believe that I can drive on sand… driving lessons aren’t normally part of the experience, and between driving a compact car and a tractorm this was a new experience to me! We stopped at a few sand hills, just the guide and I and the vast desert landscape. There are definitely tours you can do without seeing anyone, although the major attractions were quite crowded – even in January.
The next day, only one lone German turned up for the tour, with the rest being par tof a large group. So we got the private tour to Wadi Rum’s attraction sites – Lawrence Spring, the Rock Windows, Ghazali Canyon, Lawrence House, Abu Kashaba Canyon… it was busy but the drives between the attractions were great, with more empty desert. We stopped at an undisclosed spot for sunset, had tea with a few tourists from Amman, which was perhaps my favourite, with some of the best views on the whole trip.
Sleeping two nights in the desert was also great but can be a mixed experience. The first night, the camp was empty – it was all simple food, starry nights and the quietest night. The second night, add about thirty people from a group who made quite a racket. Ear plugs were necessary, but the starry sky was just as spectacular.
Diving in Aqaba as a Novice Diver
Diary of a new Scuba Diver (part of it is about Aqaba diving)
Also, there is an older Aqaba post – less diving, more practicalities
Cost of 7 days in Aqaba
Flight: 76 Euro on Easyjet (hand luggage only)
Budget hotel, 5 nights in double room at Relax House: 115 Euro
Two nights Wadi Rum Camp and two private tours with Wadi Rum Caravan Station Camp: about 150 Euro
PADI Advance Open Water Diver and two fun dives with Petra Divers: about 400 Euro
All in all, with the flights being so cheap, a very budget-friendly break. Diving is cheaper in the busier Egyptian resorts and possibly there are more spectacular reefs (the further south you go, but it also gets more expensive) but I really liked the school the diversity of dive sites and the intact coral in Aqaba. Also, Aqaba is definitely solo female friendly – walking around at all times of the day, totally not a problem. Being able to spend two full days in Wadi Rum, just 40 minutes away, was a definite bonus.
March: London Layover
A trip out of necessity, but I thought I make the best of it. Any basic hotel would cost something like 170 Euro, so, after a long hiatus, I went to sleep in a dorm again. And guess what? Although the hostel as nice (women only, relatively quiet clientele) I am still not massively into it. I like my nice cotton bedsheets and an open window and ideally just me (and my husband) in the bedroom.
What I did get to see was Bethnal Green with its mix of old school East End and Asian cultures – I think it is rapidly being gentrified, as one can tell by all the artisan coffee shops and snack bars.
But also some of the old establishments, they won’t budge. Give me an E. Pellicci breakfast over avocado toast any day. And you get a table there pronto if you show up at opening time on a weekday.
You also don’t have it far to the finest no-fuss Asian restaurants when staying in this neck of the woods. A swift underground ride to East Ham gives you the pick of some great Asian restaurants – usually Southern Indian with some Northern Indian and Chinese influences as well. I had a great dinner at Vasantha Vilas Restaurant, but was too full and too tired to explore any of the others.
Last not least, I went to visit a friend from my English hospital days and ventured out further east… my friend is into stately homes and good food, which makes for a cracking combination. So we visited Eltham Palace – it is marketed as a Royal Residence but this was in the days of Edward IV and earlier which , in plain German is 14th to 16th Century and the palace was totally overhauled by some textile industrialists in the early 20th Century, giving it a cool Art Deco interior.
So you can wander round at your liberty, and see some pretty decent gardens as well, all quite leisurely. We visited on a Friday afternoon and had the place almost to ourselves. It is a bit of a trip on public transport, though… I had the luxury of being driven by my friend who doesn’t live far away, but the whole area is pretty lovely middle England with flowers and half-timbered houses. Southeast Rail Network is a book with seven seals to be, but you may get into the City of London especially somewhere near Cannon Street in under half an hour as this is prime commuter land.
Cost of three days in London
Flight: 50 Euro on Ryanair (hand luggage only)
Two nights dorm in Hostel at Hostelle London: 63 Euro (and one night at a friend’s house)
Food and Shopping: as always, a lot! Also visited museums, loads of pubs and cafes, a palace, walked from one cafe to chocolate shop to pub…
All in all, London is rarely cheap… I needed to travel to London in a professional capacity. I probably could have written the hotel bill off tax, but… even a basic hotel would cost about 250 Euro per night, I was on my own,so chose the cheapskate option and spent a lot of money on restaurants.
April: A very thorough Venice Tour
If there are some Italian cities that I love more than others, and honestly, I have never been to one that I didn’t love, Venice comes close to the top of the list. I think this was to be my fourth trip to Venice, and my mother’s first. My mum turned 70 the year before, and although she bowed out of our 2022 Uzbekistan trip due to a case of bad leg, she loves to travel, so I gave her a Venice trip with “four star hotel” for her birthday.
Venice is notoriously expensive, and crowded, so I planned our trip in early spring and scanned Booking.com for reasonably priced hotels with good reviews at least six months in advance. And I found a real cracker, in a stately palazzo with an in -house gondola station 200 metres from St Mark’s Square, no less – just in case the bad leg would pop up. She could have had the gondola tour and then sit in Caffe Florian all day people watching…
Thankfully, it didn’t come to that, so we managed a tiny bit of walking… about 7k steps, with me usually doing double that with some extra wanderings.
Since it was my mother’s first visit to Venice, we did the obvious: St Mark’s Basilica, the grand vistas (minus the stairs), the Canale Grande – usually done on a water bus. We also went to the Castello and Giudecca districts a few times, be it for the good and somewhat off the radar restaurants, or for the stunning views.
Another surprise was the largely empty museums and churches. Sure, not St. Marks Basilica. But we purchased a “Chorus Pass” which covers a good dozen of churches housing significant artworks, and everywhere we went, these churches were a welcome respite from the madness outside. We were also quite lucky with the weather in late March – it was sunny throughout, and the city already busy.
I planned some route with a rest stop or two in a church, liek San Polo here, with a somewhat chaotic-looking “Last Supper” by Tintoretto. There is a great website called “The Churches of Venice” with detailed descriptions of their art. Unfortunately it isn’t secure, so I didn’t link it – the address is http://churchesofvenice.com.
Another museum I had on my wish list for years was Casa Fortuny, now refurbished for the xth time after flooding, COVID and God knows what. It was closed on my first ever visit to Venice, and imagine my joy to finally find it open! If you love slightly eccentric fashion and art, this is the right place to come. Not many people seem to be into eccentric fashion and art, so the huge museum was mostly empty, and I had lots of charts with the attendants.
We also managed to jump the queue to the Doge’s Palace by visiting a small portion only – the temporary Vittorio Carpaccio exhibition. This way, we got to see the courtyard, some of the grand staircases and got an idea of grandeur of the Doge’s Palace before concentrating on the relatively small but excellent exhibition in a small section of the palace.
Anyway, at some point, I will probably write a couple more posts about this visit. We had some vague plans to tour the Palladio villas, to visit Burano and outer lagoon islands, but apart from an afternoon in Murano, we spent our entire time in Venice! We just took our time, took small pedestrian routes and had plenty of coffee and church stops and long lunches.
Our final accommodation was in Cannaregio, vis a vis from the waterbus stop. This took us away from the busy touristy streets of San Marco. HAving seen most of what we wanted to see, we strolled through the sestiere and watched a bit of authentic Venetian life
Last not least, writing about the food would blow up this post too much! We got a pretty solid breakfast at the hotel and loved on small snacks, ice cream and the occasional quality dinner. My advice: go to a reputable bar and eat cicchetti, the small Venetian snacks, served with a glass of wine. We had a few really nice meals but had to reserve days ahead – my post about great food places in Venice is below!
There are some updated, some completely new ones
How to enjoy Venice stress- free and on a budget
An updated post about great places to eat in Venice
And one on buying great souvenirs in Venice, including some great sources of Murano glass
Cost of five days in Venice
Flights for two people: initially 130 Euro, 170 Euro when re-booked. Ryanair cancelled the initial flights, so I rebooked on Easyjet
Budget hotel Ostello AMDG for one night: 73 Euro
Mid range Hotel Casa Burchielle and Hotel Olimpia for one night: 71 Euro
Four Star Hotel Palazzo Bonvecchiati for three nights: 370 Euro
ACTV Venice Travel Card for 7 days and Chorus Pass: 78 Euro
All in all, given Venice prices, we did pretty well. We skipped the super pricey attractions, but went to a great art exhibition (Vittore Carpaccio) at the Doge’s Palace, saw tons of art in churches, walked over 15k steps a day, which is a lot for us arthritic mares. Pretty proud but also in pain a lot, eased by countless cappucchini and prolonged trips on the vaporetto
May and June: Back to School in Nagasaki
The biggie. This is by far my most expensive trips in years, mostly because I was away for six weeks in a country that isn’t cheap, and there’s a 450k JPY Yen tuition fee, toothis was not cheap. However – I had a great time in Japan, studied something relatively new, and managed a couple of weekend trips and, last not least, got to know the touristic sights of Nagasaki quite well.
And that’s not all. With my relatively cheap flights on China Airlines, I got two days of sightseeing in Taipei thrown in as well!
First of all, I felt immensely lucky to be studying on this beautiful green campus of Nagasaki University. This is the old Nagasaki Medical College, about 500 metres from the bomb epicentre. You won’t see it here, but it was nearly completely destroyed and there are small mementoes of the bomb everywhere.
Nagasaki’s history, to most Westerners, is tied to the bomb, but there’s a lot more. It is one of the first Japanese cities to open to Western traders, a major centre of industrialisation during the Meiji restoration, and sits beautifully between mountains and sea.
The city centre is lined by beautiful temples and shrines from different era – some easily visited by the vintage tram, some a little hike away. And some places, like the outstanding Mihara Gardens, you would just find out about by word of mouth.
My husband came to visit and loved Nagasaki. After some initial hesitation and one night of bad jet lag, that is. So, for our second weekend we hired a car and explored Nagasaki and Saga prefectures.
Starting with Higashi Sonogi tea growing region. I had a great time – I love green tea. My husband – not so, but he loved it too as the landscapes are beautiful, and some of the places we visited (Ureshino, Hasami, Omura) see pretty much zero foreign tourists.
A scenic highlight was Okawachiyama Village in Imari – a blend of beautiful porcelain and beautiful nature in the Arita and Imari porcelain industrial region.
Last not least, I had a little under 12 hours in Taipei on each of my journeys. Taiwan’s largest airport at Taoyuan is so accessible and organized that going into Taipei was a breeze, and I really enjoyed learning about the Taiwanese culture and all the vegetarian food and yet more tea. I also thought the massages I had there were some of the best, ever, so whenever I got a bit of a backache I remember these massage places fondly and I wish they were closer!
Various posts on Kyushu are ready, but a few bigger ones are still in the Drafts folder. I have made to “stopover” posts on Taipeh.
Visiting the Shu Matsubara Knife Foundry
Higashi Sonogi Tea Region
Secret Kiln Village of Okawachiyama
Coming Soon: Arita Treasure Hunting at Kouraku Kiln
Stopover in Taipei – this one is mainly about temples
A more relaxed Taipei Stopover
I flew on and reviewed China Airlines on the occasion
Cost of six weeks in Nagasaki (plus six weeks of online tuition)
DTM&H Course fee: 450.000 JPY ( about 3200 Euro)
Flight in China Airlines, Economy Class, from Frankfurt to Fukuoka: 910 Euro
Mid range apartment hotel 6 nights at Grand Base Nagasaki City: 275 Euro
Modern Ryokan Relaxing Inn Origami 和みの宿 おりがみ about 15nights: 578 Euro (plus about 300 Euro for one week of husband staying)
Business Hotel SPeria Nagasaki 4 nights: 200 Euro
Student Hotel Himawari ひまわり 14 nights: 270 Euro
Car Hire through Booking.com (Nissan Rent a Car) for three days: 122 Euro
September: Emilia-Romagna and Veneto, Italy
For or “main” holiday, the brief was cheap, warm, safe, with good food. I would be way from home a lot this year, and my husband is a real homebody who loves nothing better than digging his garden, or, if pushed out of the house, visit Spain, Greek and Italy in rotation. Also, we were having some rebuilding work in our house so a lot of budget went to that. After really trying my hardest for a Greek Island or Sardinia, all flights were over 200 Euro, so I booked the cheapest one I could find to one of my husband’s preferred destinations, and got flights to Bologna.
I am going to keep this short, as I have just published two blog posts about this trip. In terms of finding a reasonably priced holiday with good accommodation and even better food, this was a real win.
Holidaying in Ravenna
The Stunning Mosaics of Ravenna
Dipping my toe in AI generated blog posting (and pulling it out again quickly)
Cost of one week Emilia-Romagna and Veneto, Italy
Flights for two people: 220 Euro
Guest House B&B Al Borgo in Ravenna for four nights: 255 Euro
Apartment Le Stanze di LaVi in Ferrara for two nights: 130 Euro
Apartment Little House in Bologna for one night: 80 Euro
Car Hire from Noleggiare for a day: 75 Euro (with all insurance we could buy, but the rental is very nice and transparent)
Train tickets Bologna-Ravenna-Ferrara-Bologna: about 60 Euro for two
All in all, a very budget-friendly break, especially saving a ton on average hotel prices in Italy in September 2023 – if it weren’t for all the lovely restaurant food we consumed.
November: Working trip to Dhaka
This was long in the planning and cut short due to political unrest. When I planned my 2023 travels, I had applied both the the UNiversity of Nagasaki and this placement with a German NGO, expecting one or the other to fall through. After I got rejected for my course in the first round, Dhaka got confirmed, so I confirmed the placement only to be offered a place at NAgasaki UNiversity a couple weeks later.
Anyway, this all being pro bono unpaid work, and a lot of overtime in my work account, my employer agreed to six weeks of unpaid leave so that I could go and work in a Dhaka suburb in a small medical practice offering low cost treatment.
Since this blog is about travel, I am highlighting the trips I did manage – one into Old Dhaka and what I would call “fancy Dhaka” with its expat-friendly hotels and restaurants, and one into the Barisal division.
My first weekend, after getting over a bit of culture shock, we did some nice long walks in Old Dhaka before retiring to the nice cool pool in our fancy hotel.
On my second weekend, we took a private tour into Barisal division, enthusiastically called the Venice of Southern Asia. We travelled by overnight launch, whioch means we got to see Sadarshat at its most active, lit by the launches disco lights.
The next morning, we had the complete contrast, touring Barisal waterways in our private cargo barge. Easily one of the best travel days this year.
Now Bangladesh is not your popular country to visit, and I probably wouldn’t have gone there had it not been for the connections through the NGO I worked for. Saying that, Bangladesh was one of my favourite countries to travel this year. What it may lack in traditional sights, it compensates more than enough by the most welcoming people. It definitely isn’t an easy country to travel in, but I found it safe, except for the road traffic.
Unfortunately our stay was cut short by political unrest in the run-up to the general election. While we did not feel unsafe at all, our NGO decided to repatriate us after just three weeks. I was fighting tooth and nail to stay but while I was still discussing this on the phone, my flight had already been re-booked and we made an orderly retreat back into the German cold and rain. I am considering returning in the coming year but am undecided whether the NGO I went with would be a good fit – on the ground in Dhaka, things were mildly chaotic and sometimes frustrating, but overall, I think the clinic was a useful establishment for the local population. Would I go again? To Bangladesh, definitely, even to the same project. It has its limitations, but ultimately , with a bit more experience of working in Bangladesh and some language knowledge I think it’s useful work even though there’s always a hint of “white saviour” leaving me a little uncomfortable.
Cost of six weeks (working) in Dhaka
Donation to cover insurance and half the flights: 795 Euro
Hotel in Dhaka for one night: 35 Euro
Private Tour of Barisal and Backwater including launch and hotel: 250 Euro
So at least three trips had something to do with my work, not my main job, but the freelance job as a travel physician and sometimes diving medicine advisor. I am still learning on both, but made great leaps by completing my Diploma of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in June at the University of Nagasaki.
December: Edinburgh and not a Christmas Market in sight
Another trip that didn’t quit ego as planned. My mum wanted to do a “nice Christmas period trip” and since Munich, Vienna and Strasbourg train tickets cost a bomb, I found cheap flights and proposed… Edinburgh. Since my mum was interested in visiting Scotland, everything was swiftly booked but another hospital stay and a case of very bad leg immobilized my mum to the extent that she had to cancel.
So, what was I to do? With my mother safely at home and independent, I went on my own! Canceled the nice mid-range hotel (above a Toby Carvery, no less! I was really looking forward to the cooked breakfasts) and booked something way cheaper, which, in retrospect, was good, because it introduced me to the nice suburb of Leith.
Town was rammed in the day time, so I rose early and walked more than I should. returning pretty knackered and lame. I got a bunch of nice photographs though and a tasting of no less than ten really lovely whiskies. Also refilled my diminishing Bisto Onion gravy stocks and saw more of Edinburgh than on any previous visit because I walked all morning on my own, being totally selfish about what to do and see. I even managed to fit a bit of work in!
I don’t have any blog posts so far – barely managed to transfer my photos to my hard drive. Edinburgh is beautiful and always worth a visit, but the weather can be unpredictable and the crowds huge. But with that knowledge, and a bit of good itinerary planning, this trip was wonderful.
Cost of two days and three nights in Edinburgh
Flight: 78 Euro
Three nights in a single room: about 160 Euro
Food and drink: about 60 Euro for a lovely dinner and whisky tasting, roughly 25 Euro for a standard dinner
I am not sure what’s next with this, although I am nowhere near quitting my main job, which I love, but I am also increasingly becoming interested in NGO and charity work. While travel medicine is fun, and usually quite rewarding, my ultimate aim is to make a sustainable contribution to medicine for those without access to good medical care. I will divide my 2024 leave days into holidays and some work trips!
Having founded a charity in 2021 and remaining on the board, now is the time to reduce my hours in my paid job and do some more work in the field rather than being the charity treasurer and running courses. I am still really just dipping my toe in the water right now, looking to find a charity to work with on the long run and learning about medicine in low resource settings and emerging economies.
The Small Print on my 2023 travel year review
All trips were planned by me, with costs given at the end of the section. I only included links to businesses if I would honestly recommend them. I paid for all services and did not receive any discounts for recommendations – they don’t really know I am writing this post. So, all promotion here is voluntary and comes as a honest recommendation! If I stayed somewhere booked through Booking.com I have included the affiliate link to Booking.com, meaning these links are affiliate links and I may earn a small commission if you book using one of these links.