The end of the year is near. Time for my 2019 travel review, a year full of work and a moderate amount of travelling within the limits of three jobs.
However… we Germans are lucky to get a generous annual leave allowance, so I have absolutely no reason to complain.
Although I dream of travelling for a little longer every now and probably will when the opportunity arises, I am more than happy with what I’ve seen and where I travelled this year – even if not all my best-laid plans were fulfilled.
Table of Contents
My 2019 travel review in short
Leave Days: 31
Days away: 49
Countries visited: United Kingdom, Uzbekistan, Spain (twice), France, Finland, Estonia, Russia, Turkey
New countries: 3 (Uzbekistan, Finland, Estonia)
Total number of flights taken: 14
You don’t have to travel far to stay off the beaten track
The most important thing to come out of my 2019 travel review: There is absolutely no need to seek out the faraway places. By digging a little deeper, going beyond Google’s first page and by asking well-travelled friends and acquaintances, I found little-visited places with rich cultural heritage and barely a tour group.
Here is my 2018 travel review – the year I resurrected the old semi-abandoned free one and moved to a self-hosted blog.
I had never heard of Priego de Cordoba until reading a rather lengthy Andalucia guide last winter. It’s a small town full of baroque churches. Similarly, the renaissance cities of Baeza and Ubeda in Andalucia are little visited.
I visit Southwestern France almost every year, and each time I manage to find somewhere new and visit-worthy. This time, it was Rodez and its excellent Musee Soulages.
Off the beaten track in Barcelona seems an oxymoron! I had to fly to Barcelona at the height of the summer this year when the city is swarming with tourists. Not only did this coincide with the Festa Major de Gracia, but the beautiful district also holds one of the first buildings by Antoni Gaudi (and very few visitors).
And less than one kilometre from the impressive but totally overcrowded Sagrada Familia is the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, designed by Gaudi contemporary Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and part of the city development of Barcelona
A random internet surfing (really!) took me on a bus trip into Stalinist Southern St. Petersburg and to this gem. Even better, there was a service ongoing when I visited, with beautiful choral hymns.
Less than 20km from the tourist magnet of Pamukkale, we found peace and quiet in some old villages mosque. Sometimes, you need the imam or some friendly locals to find where they are and to gain entry. It’s generally not a problem in super friendly rural Turkey.
My favourite Destination (and not so favourite ones)
Istanbul never disappoints
It’s always hard to pick a favourite, but Istanbul wins every time. The perfect combination of familiarity yet different culture, the ease of travelling there, the wonderful food, never ending cultural treasures and excellent shopping, and last not least, my new favourite hotel. All in Istanbul. And it’s the title of one of my favourite Morrissey songs.
Finland: a fleeting visit of some design highlights and too much coffee
Honestly, I loved all places I visited. There were bits I did not like so much, but altogether none of these destinations really disappointed.
Admittedly, I did not spend a lot of time in Finland. A day in Helsinki, that’s it. I found the city expensive compared to Western Europe. There did not seem to be a lot to see, and by saying that, let me tread carefully: I knew my time was limited, and I chose to head out into the suburbs an visit the Studio Aalto. Then I had lunch, drank rather a lot of coffee, and strolled the shops in shock about prizes, then went to Russia.
Andalucia: Mostly relaxed, but…
I loved almost everywhere I visited in Spain but Seville was less of a wonderful experience. One word to sum it up: overtourism. The city is beautiful. The crowds aren’t even on our off-season March trip. We got round it by getting up super early in our hotel on the motorway, driving into an empty city, visiting the Real Alcazar and spending the rest of the afternoon in the rarefied atmosphere courtyard cafe of the Hotel Alphonso XIII.
I was glad that we spent the majority of time in lesser known but no less beautiful places like Jaen, BAeza, and Sanlucar de Barrameda.
Public transport in the United Kingdom
Renting a car would be cheaper than using the coach from Stansted Airport into London. And don’t get me started on prices for train travel. And the UK being bloody expensive. I don’t remember it being like this. But my favourite tin of mints jumping from 2.99 to 5 quid in less than four years is short of disastrous.
If there’s one place in my 2019 travel review that was a bit pants, it was Pamukkale
Why on earth would every one want to go there? The terraces are very fine indeed, and so is the archaeological site of Hierapolis on top of it, but the small village appears totally overwhelmed by the masses and there is little to find apart from so-so accommodation, terrible tourist restaurants and tacky souvenir shops.
Sorry, I love Turkey, but Pamukkale was the low light of my trip. It didn’t help that I was struck down by a stomach bug at the time. However… the region is not without its attractions, and one of my favourite places is 20km from there – disppointment and an incredible afternoon so close together.
Lessons learned in my 2019 travel review
In the years since I first set out to travel outside the protective wing of family or school class (to London!) my travel style has changed a lot. And in a way, I can feel it going back to where I started!
Back then, I had a little 40l backpack, stayed in cosy little B&Bs, travelled exclusively on public transport and travelled with a friend.
The friends have been replaced by my husband. In the years in between, I often travelled solo, stayed in places from the cheapest hostel to luxury hotels, a bit of everything, I can honestly say. One thing I never warmed up to where organised group trips – one with a boyfriend to oh so exotic Greece, then one to Morocco in 1998 because it was not deemed “safe” for a woman to travel alone, especially not a young female like me.
I always liked to plan my trips – it was part of the fun of travelling. And I thoroughly enjoyed researching transport and accommodation, writing emails to hotels and guesthouses in the days before online booking. I remember stringing a trip to Japan together, staying in independent guest houses for a fraction of the price of an organised trip. I never see this changing. My 2019 travel review also shows you can travel independently for relatively little money, and hotel booking sites like Booking.com make it incredibly easy to compose your very own tailor-made trip. and the trip planning is something I will keep for the future.
Limiting my use of AirBnB
In the early days, I loved AirBnB. It was the first place to look when I planned a trip whether a private room in someone’ s place when travelling solo or as a couple, or a small flat all to myself, my early experiences were excellent. I never really had a bad experience within the restraints of renting someone’s spare Rooms (check-in only at specific times, nowhere to put your luggage, host smoking, cooking and entertaining Habits) but I often missed the anonymity of my hotel room and being able to do absolutely anything I wanted.
As I moved somewhere with an acute shortage of rental properties and a bit of an Air BnB problem, I became more aware of how the company profits from the misery of others – people with long rent-controlled leases renting out their entire place, newcomers unable to find apartments, late-night noise bothering residents. Income generated in my home country not being taxed here.
Renting somewhere privately on a short term certainly has its benefits – chosen wisely, you may “live like a local” Air BnB has somewhere in its tag line. As much as I love going out to eat, after a week of very rich Romanian and Ukrainian food and markets bursting with fresh produce I was dying for a kitchen. It’s nice to do a bit of laundry when you travel with minimal luggage. Or sit on something else rather than you hotel bed at night. Hotel prices, even in the budget category, can be prohibitive in some places. I last stayed in an AirBnB in Southern England when a room in a somewhat dubious looking B&B would have cost double. And I committed the cardinal sin of using AirBnB in Barcelona because I didn’t want to pay 150Euro for a three-star hotel room. (I stayed in a rom in someone’s flat though, who actually lived there)
Most of all, I love meeting local people. How can I forget our superb little bedroom in the cosmetologists house in Yerevan, complete with home made breakfast and free Russian lesson? My lovely home stay in Jerusalem and learning about what’s kosher and what isn’t?
So, in the future, I will check carefully whether AirBnB in my chosen destination is legitimate. I will rent a room in someone’s house rather than an entire property. I will only rent an apartment if it is quite clearly on someone’s property and can’t really be rented out separately to someone long term.
Using more public transport
Admittedly, I’m already doing pretty good. I can count on one hand the number of occasions where we hired a car. My husband loves public transport (and local food) so this has always been an important factor on our trips. On my own I couldn’t possibly bother to hire a car all for myself. When there was no way to reach a place by public transport, we’d hire a car with driver for the day or (rarely) join an excursion.
Now, at least to offset some of my flying, I really want to make the most of train and buses in my destination. I will try to pick destinations where public transport network is good and use public transport exclusively, only hire a car when there are no public transport options. I’ve never been a fan of camper vans or motor homes – allegedly you cause as much detriment for the environment by a weeks campervan cruising as you would by a shorthaul flight. I know which one I’ll take, then.
Staying in one place for longer
This year, although good in terms of general life, and travel, was a busy one. Travelling meant moving swiftly from one location to the next. And honestly, as much as I am happy to enjoy that privilege of being able to move freely, and have the funds to travel several times a year, being on transport rather than staying in one place was exhausting!
Going to Uzbekistan for just five days? Almost criminal.
Driving through Andalucia? Yes, but sleeping in a different bed almost every night.
Ferry to Russia for just over 60 hours? Even in calm seas, it was somewhat exhausting.
Almost every time, I felt like I needed a holiday after the holiday!
Lets do it differently. But old habit are hard to shift. So I am planning my next trip into a multi-stop sightseeing extravaganza.
Travel less, splurge more
This will be interesting.
In recent years, I tended to stay at the lower end of medium budget on all my travels.
However, lower budget doesn’t always mean cheap and spartan. By travelling outside the main season, I usually manage to find lovely hotels that don’t break the budget.
This simple but oh so stylish room at the Alcoba del Agua Hotel in Sanlucar de Barrameda cost just 50 Euro.
This very decorated on in Bukhara, a tourist mecca in the spring and summer, was just 38 Euro in March – a perfectly fine time to travel to Bukhara and Samarkand.
If I ever return to Malaysia (which I hope i will, soon) staying at the superb Cheong Fatt Tse Mansion ist mandatory. I stayed here in 2007, and I am pleased to see the rooms still cost less than 100 Euro per night.
Another 2007 not-so-budget stay at the Winter Palace in Luxor. I cheated a little by sleeping in the now-demolished Soviet built extension and using the superb shared pool and garden of its luxury hotel building.
Time to get into a bit of chintz and historic hotels again?
Because our honeymoon hotel treat turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, I persuaded my budget-conscious husband to treat ourselves to a night at the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul. Even though none of the places we stayed in Turkey were terrible, with one exception, it turned out to be one of the highlights of our Turkey trip. And it reminded me how much I like to stay somewhere historical and a bit grand.
This place charmed me from the first minute. Yes, spending 100+ Euros on a room for a single night, when usually that’s the accommodation budget for the entire week, requires some different approach to holiday money saving. But holidays are a very special time, and I will, in the future, seek out occasional special hotels and guesthouses that offer that bit of luxury.
I’m off to a good start with the quality hotels, because in 2020 we have decided to visit Japan! It’s a long flight, and going there just for a week is out of question, so two weeks it is, and with is comes a significant expense. We will probably make use of the good old Toyoko Inn or whatever other Business Hotel Chain has sprung up, but there cannot be a Japan trip without staying at a traditional Japanese Inn or a temple lodging. It will be my fourth visit to Japan, and I have been digging out my notes from previous Japan trips where I stayed in some truly special places. You can book a lot of places on Booking.com, but then they often show up as unavailable (a phenomenon I noticed with more rural hotels here, too) so it’s emailing accommodations or – gasp – phoning them. It will be worth the effort, because if something isn’t as easy to book, it may be less crowded – perhaps.
Other than that, I have booked a flight to London (Luton) for a family reunion along with a half-timbered cosy-looking village inn, and I am planning to revisits St. Petersburg at the end of winter. I am not sure if that will work out, as the language tour operators I have contacted have been very silent – I might just book directly with a school. I had planned to use some work study leave, where you will need to book with an accredited study leave tour operator, but if the level or service remains shockingly low, and they cannot even bothered to respond to a simple enquiry, I don’t want to know how they’ll handle study leave approval bureaucracy and visa formalities.
Last not least, I have a trip to Jordan coming up. It’s all built on a 44 Euro return flight, and I made a reservation here and there after studying a guide book and public transport routes. January is traditionally a time when there is little leisure travel here in Europe, except for some skiing, the nights are still long and dark, the weather cold, and there is nothing better than a bit of sunshine in these dark months.
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