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Albania, Bosnia, Bucket List, Burma, Camino de Santiago, Croatia, Czech Republic, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Hungary, Macedonia, Montenegro, Myanmar, Norway, Slovenia, Spain

The Travel Year in Review

me flies when you’re having fun, and the past five months have felt like five weeks. But what another incredible journey it has been, filled with some of the most profound travel moments yet.

Somehow, I feel like I was sitting at the table writing my 2013 bucket list yesterday, and here I am wrapping up the ‘Year in Review’ post. Don’t worry, this will be quickly followed by the 2014 “Travel bucket list.” But I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, and I do want to highlight what was an epic summer of European travel, followed by a very long walk through Spain and a visit back to Southeast Asia- a region I fell in love with four years ago.

To quickly review, my 2013 bucket list was ambitious. Many countries are being carried over to next years’ list, but I can cross Norway and Burma off. And, well, wouldn’t you know that many new countries have presented themselves. Next years list might be even longer than the last.

Holmenkollbakken Ski Jump
Viegeland’s Park

This years’ travels began in Norway, and it is a country that did not disappoint. It was an epic place to start, and logistically a smart place to begin. Norway is not for the frugal backpacker. A beer will set you back $15, a guesthouse $30 or above and sightseeing doesn’t run cheap either. The infamous Norway in a Nutshell tour costs around $200 USD. Ouch!! I was very fortunate to be introduced to new friends in Oslo, who put me up for a couple of nights. Oslo is packed full of things to see and do – The Munch Museum, Vigeland’s Sculpture Park, the new Opera House, the Viking Museum, Botanical Gardens, and the famous Holmenkollbakken ski jump, which overlooks the sprawling city below.

En route to Bergen

I traveled West on the ‘Norway in a Nutshell’ tour, taking two trains, one boat, and a bus and finally ending up in Bergen 12 hours later… after passing glaciers, fjords, waterfalls, remote villages, and stave churches. In Bergen, I savored salmon and whale at the famous outdoor fish market, and had my first sample of smoked reindeer. It was a culinary highlight.

A bird’s-eye-view of Alesund

From Bergen, I flew to Alesund and reconnected with a travel buddy from Honduras, who put me up and gave me a tour of the middle part of the country. Alesund is an interesting city in the fact that it burned down entirely in 1904, and was rebuilt in Art Nouveau architecture. Pair this with the surrounding Atlantic Ocean and a number of barrier islands, and you have a picture-perfect setting.

Preikstolen, or ‘Pulpit’s Rock’

Unfortunately, the weather had gone from bad to worse and continued to deteriorate throughout my time in Alesund, but the sun broke through for my late afternoon visit to Geiranger Fjord. And days later, after flying south to Stavanger, I managed half a day of sunshine for the hike up Preikstolen (aka, ‘Pulpit’s Rock).

I decided mid-way through my ten days in Norway that I would return one day with a camper van and an unlimited number of days with which to explore this picturesque place.

Prague’s colorful buildings and terracotta rooftops

How could I be sad to leave Norway, when I was headed to meet my best friend in the Czech Republic for ten more days of galavanting? I had visited Prague while studying abroad in Paris during college, but I had no idea what the rest of the Czech Republic had in store for me. What an incredibly amazing place?! Prague is rife with tourists, and you can sort of tell that the locals are over it. In fact, I was kind of over it too after a few days. Just too many people with their cameras, and not enough of the real, local culture to immerse yourself in anymore. But head outside of Prague city limits and it’s like traveling back in time to a place where the rich Czech culture still exists.

Cesky Krumlov

We hired a car and drove over 1500 kilometers in six days, heading northeast to Karlovy Vary, and continuing on in a counterclockwise direction. Karlovy Vary is one of the most picturesque villages I have ever seen, and it’s known for it’s natural mineral water springs, covered and protected by ancient colonnades.

Cesky Kromlov is also very picturesque and a UNESCO site, which in turn, brings many of
Prague’s tourists south. It was beautiful to see, but the true treats were discovered driving through the surrounding villages, getting lost (even if unintended), and exploring castle ruins dating back to the 11th Century. From Cesky, we headed to Mikulov, my personal favorite stop on the journey.

Velhartice Castle
Tapas, the Czech way

Mikulov is about 20 minutes from the Austrian border, and it is officially sleepy. Still, you can find plenty to fill three days with here, and if you really like wine, consider at least one more day for tasting. This is an undiscovered gem, which probably won’t stay this way. We toured the Jewish Cemetery, hiked up to a hilltop church at sunrise, toured Mikulov castle, and ate and drank our way from one end of the street to the other. We savored homemade dishes of roast lamb, spinach and potatoes, topped off with the family’s home vinted Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, all served with heart, warmth and pride.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral

Mikulov was a great jumping off point for a day trip to Vienna, a city I had never made it to on past European trips. Yes, we downloaded Mozart for the drive, which took us from country lanes surrounded by vast sunflower fields, to city highways. In Vienna, we toured St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Hapsburg Palace, The Summer Palace, and the Opera House. There are no performances in July and August, so opera will have to wait…til next time.

We returned to Prague at the end of our trip, dropped off our very dirty white Skoda, and headed to Prague’s JW Marriott in the Old Town for two nights of luxury. We befriended a young Czech girl in the lounge, who took such good care of us, and told us what to see and do and where to go to get off the beaten path. Highlights at the back end of the Prague trip included, Ivan Lendl’s Mucha art collection, touring Prague Castle, sampling beers brewed by monks, and did I mention the Marriott – that was pretty nice too 😉

*side note- If you love to bike and/or are looking for a biking holiday, consider the Czech Republic for beautiful scenery and challenging daily rides.

The river Danube, separating Buda and Pest

From Prague, I booked a bus ticket to Budapest, another European city I had been wanting to check out for quite some time now. I arrived at the end of a day where temperatures had reached 40+ celsius (over 105 degrees Farenheit.) After checking in to the guesthouse, I went out in search of a cold beer, and ended up in a local joint, where the bar maid wore a wet towel around her neck, which she jokingly called her AC. I sat next to a train driver and we conversed in broken English about life in Budapest.

Budapest’s Green Bridge

The following day dawned clear, cool and windy, and I set out on a free walking tour of the city, enabling me to get the lay of the land and learn a little bit more about this city and it’s history. I find that I enjoy getting out of cities more these days, but as far as cities go, Budapest has got it going on. And it really feels like many people haven’t figured this out yet. Shhhh! That’s what’s so nice about it.

Szechenyi Baths

After a couple days of soaking in the sights and playing the tourist card, a great group of people from Bubble Hostel hit the town hard, exploring the ruin pub scene. Nightlife is unpretentious and fun, and the only event on the agenda the following day is soaking in the public baths at Szechenyi. I make it there just before sunset, plop myself in a heated pool and start to come back to life. Then I visit the sauna, where I follow the lead of a few, plump Hungarian men, who sit in the sauna, and then dip into the plunge pool that is a chilly 15 degrees (celcius). They get a laugh out of watching me psyche myself up to submerse myself fully underwater.

Lake Bled, Slovenia

Budapest is followed by a short trip to Northern Croatia. I arrive in Zagreb with big plans to really see this country.  These plans are foiled when I realize it’s August and the rest of Europe also wants to see Croatia. It is peak travel season and prices are uncomfortably high for my modest backpacker’s budget. I head to Pula (Northeastern Croatia) and meet Julie, who invites me to hop a ride to Munich with her. After little debate, I find myself on a crazy 36-hour road trip from Croatia to Germany, with Julie and her Slovenian friend’s brother, Duscan, at the wheel. Stops include wine sampling and swims at sunset in Northern Croatia, the incredible vineyards of Slovenia, espresso in Italy, back through Slovenia for seafood, lunch in Austria and finally our arrival in Garmisch, Germany. It was the most memorable road trip ever.

Garmisch-Partenkirchen’s Summer Festival

Julie’s friend Laura, is living and working in Garmisch at Eidelweiss, a resort for active and retired US military. After getting evicted for not legally being checked in for our stay, we are welcomed back the following day to stay for as long as we want. Laura is an awesome hostess who welcomes us to her college style dorm accommodation. Julie and Laura are in bunk beds and I’m on the sofa.

Garmisch is stunningly beautiful, and the cooler temperatures are such a welcomed change after the heat of southern Europe. We have arrived at the right time because it is Festival, which is Garmisch-Partenkirchen’s equivalent of October-Fest. And it can’t get any more authentic than this. For one week, the entire town dons their dirndll and lederhosen and celebrates with liter beers, sausages, music and dance. I feel like this puts OctoberFest to shame.

Paragliders over Zugspitze

The little town of Garmisch is surrounded by some of Germany’s highest peaks, so hiking is on the agenda almost everyday. The physical activity is welcomed, and I manage to climb three mountains surrounding Garmisch, each giving a different perspective on the little town below. But the best perspective came a few days later. After hiking one morning and seeing the sky above filled with paragliders, Julie and I inquired about going up ourselves, and Laura was able to book us in through Eidelwiess. What an incredible experience! Seeing the world from that far above and gliding through the silence left me speechless and wanting to do this again and again.

Wolfgang at Greisbrau in Murnau

The trip to Garmisch is topped off with a tour of the local brewery, Griesbrau, where Wolfgang teaches us the inner workings of the brewery. With the tour comes generous samples and a test/certificate of completion at the end of the evening. Wolfgang takes this very seriously.

It has been great to chill out in Garmisch, recharge the batteries a bit and figure out what is next. Now I’m ready to hit the road again, and while I may have skipped Croatia for the moment, I’m not okay with bypassing the Balkans. I have around three weeks before I need to be in Spain for the Camino, so I book a one-way ticket to Skopje, Macedonia, via Lubljiana, and begin the Balkan tour.

Let me just say that Slovenia might be the prettiest country on the planet. Between my road trip extravaganza and a 24-hour layover here on the way to Macedonia, I saw about three-quarters of the country (it’s small). If you like Northern Italy, then you will LOVE Slovenia, and to be honest, I don’t think this is a place on many peoples’ travel radars yet. Ljubliana is a sleepy little capital city, with cobblestone streets and an impressive cafe culture, Northeastern Slovenia is producing wines that will rival those of Italy and France, the seaside looks like the movie set for “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” castles and ruins top every hill in sight, and the people are just lovely!

Jeruzalem, Slovenia. Wine Country

On my second stop through, I reconnect with Duscan, my roadtrip buddy, and we spend most of our time in the northeastern part of the country, hopping from vineyard to vineyard. We also reconnect with friends of his, who run a family vineyard. I thought they just bottled wines for themselves to enjoy, but it turns out they actually run a successful business from their basement cellar. Bostjian gave me the full tour of the cellar and took me through the wine making process from start to finish. Samples were plentiful and I left with an invitation to return for harvest season…and a slight hangover!

Skopje’s statues, Macedonia

Arriving in Skopje, Macedonia with quite the heavy head, I was picked up at the airport by the hostel owner’s father, who, upon arriving at the hostel immediately gifted me homemade wine and rakia to enjoy during my stay. Skopje is an interesting city to say the least. The pride of the people is evident in new developments and the statue obsession sweeping the city, even if it is a little bizarre. The capital is clean and tidy and home to a number of interesting sights, including a museum honoring Mother Teresa and her birthplace, an old fortress, a number of ornate, old churches and mosques, an old bazaar, and did I mention the statues. If you want to escape the city, about 30 minutes by bus is Lake Matka, where you can walk trails, kayak and see even more old churches and monasteries.

St. Clement, Lake Ohrid, Macedonia

After a couple of days in Skopje, I traveled to Lake Ohrid, my favorite spot in Macedonia. I stay in a hostel within the walls of the old city and tour the ruins of an old coliseum, then climb the steps to Tsar Samuel’s fortress, follow a trail to Plaoshnik – a beuatiful Byzantine basilica, hike down to the lakeside church, St. Jovan Kaneo, and walk back to the center of town via a lakeside walking trail. I enjoy late lunches of freshly baked bread and Greek salads, served with delicious local wine. In the evenings, I watch the sun set over the lake in the tranquil gardens of St. Jovan Kaneo. Despite being peak tourist season, Lake Ohrid is a peaceful stop on my tour of the Balkan countries.

Albanian BBQ

I take a minibus from Ohrid to the outskirts of town where I am able to get a bus to Tirana. Now, my experiences in Albania were not seen through the backpacker’s lens. I have reconnected with an old high school friend, who is working in Tirane. She has offered to put me up for a couple of days, so after the five hour bus ride, I make my way to the Sheraton. I show up in the lobby, hot, sweaty and definitely receiving some stares. I’ve been on the road for about seven weeks, so three nights at the Sheraton is a welcomed treat!

After a hot shower, I put on the cleanest clothes I can dig out of my backpack and head to dinner with Rebecca and some of her colleagues. It is Friday night and seems as if the entire city is out for an evening stroll. Sidewalk cafes and restaurants are full to the brim, so we join the crowds and sample Albanian cuisine…plates of meat, all kinds of meat – pork, beef, chicken, lamb, sausages, kebabs, served with grilled vegetables and locally brewed beers.

Kruja, Albania

The following day, we make our way to Kruja to tour ancient monasteries and castles dating back to Skanderberg’s time. This is followed by a trip to A Mrizi i Zanava, a ‘slow food’ restaurant, where we enjoy an al fresco feast. The meal begins with a pomegranite juice aperitif, quickly followed up with carafes of Albanian red wine. Appetizers including bread, olives and peppers are brought out, followed with a massive cheese plate. Next come the meat dishes – plates of lamb shanks, beef sticks, and pork kebabs. By the end of the meal, no one can manage desert. We head back to Tirana for an afternoon poolside at the Sheraton.

I’m conscious of time, as I need to be in Spain at the end of the month for the start of the Camino, so I sadly bypass the southern beaches of Albania, head north for a night in Shkodra, and then make my way to Montenegro.

An old monastery in the hills of Kotor
Kotor, Montenegro

I’ve met two people at the hostel who are hitching to the border of Montenegro, so I join them for the morning adventure. Poor planning! Moments into our walk, the rain begins. Cars, trucks and SUVs pass by, but no one stops to pick us up… and then, the guy driving the smallest car, the one who has barely any extra room, stops to pick us up. The three of us squeeze in with the three of them and make our way to the border. I think if the driver had his passport with him, he would have driven us to our final destination, but we thank him profusely and bid farewell. We walk across the border into Montenegro and get stuck in a torrential rain storm. Finally, after a taxi, bus, and minivan along the coast, we arrive in Kotor, a beautiful medieval city built in a protected bay. I spend the afternoon beachside and watch as cruise boats come and go. Behind me is St. Ivan’s fort, but I save the steps for the following morning, which dawns cool and misty, but by the time I reach the top, the mist has lifted and the views into the bay and the walled city below are breathtaking.

Mostar, Bosnia

I take an afternoon bus from Kotor to Mostar, arriving about five hours later. I walk the streets trying to find my guesthouse and eventually ask a man standing outside a grocery store where I need to go. It turns out his brother owns the hostel, so he walks me there, and I thank the travel gods for these types of coincidences.

I only have a couple of days in Bosnia, but I had my heart set on seeing Mostar, a city which was completely destroyed during the Bosnian War in 1993. The bridge, pictured to the left, was considered the pride of this country, mentioned in national anthems, and recognized as a national landmark to people world-wide. It was originally constructed in the 16th century, but unfortunately, it was also leveled during the war after being shelled by the Croats. The bridge was rebuilt in 2001 to the exact same specifications it was first built to, and is now home to the famous Mostar Diving Club. Yes, a few skilled divers (and during my time there, a few crazy Aussies) jump off this bridge, plummeting into the cold river below. While the bridge has been rebuilt, much of the city still shows its war scars, but despite there being a long way for the city to come, the people are moving on and welcome tourists with open arms, eager to share their not so distant stories of darker, war-torn days.

The walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia

From Mostar, I head back to Croatia, and while I didn’t get to see nearly as much of this country as I had originally hoped to, I did manage a jam packed afternoon in Dubrovnik before leaving the Balkans for Barcelona. I leave Mostar by bus early in the morning, and I’m in Dubrovnik by 1:00. I check the airport shuttle times and work out that I have about four hours to tour the city. I change 20 Euros, check my backpack in luggage storage, and hop a local bus to the walled city.

The outskirts of the city are seething with tourists, but fortunately, cruise ships are on their way out of the harbor, and when I climb up the stairs to begin my tour of the top of the walls, I discover that most of the people have stayed down below. This may be in an effort to escape the heat…it is a scorcher and looking down I see kayakers, sunbathers and boaters enjoying the Croatian coast. I spend about an hour walking the walls and photographing the terracotta-tiled roofs of Dubrovnik.

A view to the new city from the old, Dubrovnik

At the end of the walk, I climb up to the watchtower for a panoramic view of the city… it’s magical – blue skies, even bluer water, burnt-orange rooftops and the towering hill behind. I could spend some time here, but I know this will be a separate trip in the (near) future. I head back down to level ground and decide to walk the cobblestone streets inside the walled city before walking back to the bus station. I arrive back in just enough time and with just enough money to pay for my luggage locker and a shuttle bus to the airport to catch my evening flight to Barcelona.

Like Paris and London, Barcelona is a city that draws me back again and again. This is a place I could really spend some time exploring, and eating my way through. Unfortunately, I only have a day before I head northwest to the start of the Camino, but I manage a nice walk to the Picasso museum where I spend the afternoon learning about the life and works of this passionate artist. A trip to Barcelona wouldn’t be complete without the tapas experience, and boy has this city capitalized on peoples’ love of tapas. What used to be a freebie offered with wine has now turned into a gourmet dining experience, and one that will easily set you back 20 to 30 Euros. I head to Tapa Tapa and savor olives, pimentos, four cheese risotto and an assortment of cured meats, all polished off with a glass of the house white wine. I soak in the sidewalk cafe culture and enjoy a bit of first-class people watching before heading back to the hostel to pack up for my travels to St. Jean Pied-de-Port.

Road markers in St.Jean Pied-de-Port

September and the early part of October are spent walking 800 kilometers through northern Spain on the historic Camino Frances pilgrimage. A curiosity began growing in me after watching the movie, The Way, and when I realized I would be in Europe for the Summer, I planned the trip with the intention of being in Spain by September, one of the so-say best months to walk the Camino.

People walk the Camino for many different reasons – some for religious or spiritual reasons, others for health reasons, some because they enjoy nature or just enjoy walking. Many people embark on this historical pilgrimage looking for answers to questions, or hoping to figure things out… some are mourning the loss of a loved one, some are looking for forgiveness, the list goes on and on. But everyone is united in the daily event of walking, and everyone for the most part is quite open to sharing his or her story. People seem to be operating on a different level of consciousness, and throughout my time on the Camino, great things unfolded due to open minds and spirits.

A message for pilgrims along ‘The Way’

Over the past four years of traveling, I have enjoyed my journey that much more because of the people I have met. Travelers seem to share the same thirst for adventure and the same open-mindedness. I was hopeful that I would find many like-minded people on the Camino, and I was fortunate to do just this, but any expectations I had of this long walk were far surpassed. People told me it would be ‘incredible,’ ‘the best thing I’ve ever done,’ and all I can say in hindsight is: it was profound.

There’s a slowing down that occurs that doesn’t even happen during normal travel for me. It’s easy to keep a fast pace when traveling… moving through places, seeing the sights, and moving on, but on the Camino, you’re literally slowed down to a walking pace, and when that happens, what you observe and experience changes.

A couple of things happen in phases. After an epic first day crossing the Pyrenees, I began to experience very bad foot pain. I thought I would be covering 20-25 kilometers a day, but for three days in a row, I was slowed down to a snail’s pace, covering maybe 15 kilometers in six hours if I was lucky. I was frustrated… I was so ready to go, but physically couldn’t. Most people were experiencing some element of physical pain. I saw blisters that made my heart sink, blisters that should have prevented some people from walking, but they doctored themselves and carried on day in, day out. The physical pain was bonding at the beginning, and smiles were shared in the albergues (guesthouses) every night as we all hobbled around. We doctored our pain and spirits with generous amounts of vino tinto and, very quickly, friendships began to evolve. Soon, without even trying, my Camino Family had formed.

Sunrise at Cruz de Ferro

Once the physical pain let up, we were left with six to eight hours of walking a day, and during that time, insightful and interesting conversations evolved- ones that enable you to learn so much about another person and their life, that in turn enable you to learn so much about yourself. So while the first phase is physical, the second phase turns into a true journey of the spirit. By the time we had cleared the meseta, the flat and notoriously monotonous stage of the Camino, we had solved the problems of the world, knew each other in an in-depth way you only know a best friend, and I was wondering what would come next in the third and final stage.

Santiago Cathedral

We enter into Galicia, a damp and cool region of Spain whose landscape reminds me of Scotland or Ireland. Our Camino Family is solid by now, but a few drop off here and there and rejoin one day later or so. When we are all together, we share rooms, beds, meals, wine, band aids, stories and obviously, walks. The Camino is doing what I had
heard it would- providing us all with exactly what we need.

Our group has become sort of exclusive. We love each others company, but we’re excited to welcome new pilgrims that we walk with each day. And finally, we arrive, 33 days after starting, in Santiago. It is a reunion of sorts, which is the only satisfying thing about finishing the walk. Standing in the square in front of the cathedral and seeing faces I hadn’t seen since the second week of the Camino is uplifting, especially at a time when I’m preparing for so many farewells. A group of about twelve of us head out for a final dinner of tapas and sangria, and as quickly as it all began, it is over… well, the walking is, but the lessons of the Camino will stay with me for a long time. My heart is heavy and full, all at the same time.

I could easily end my travels for 2013 with the Camino, but I have one more place I need to see, and that is Burma. Despite having traveled most of Southeast Asia three years ago, Burma was not open to tourists then, and it is now. I want to see Burma before tourism, commercialism and western influence have taken their hold. I sort tickets from Spain back to London, and book a decently-priced one-way ticket to Bangkok, via Mumbai. (It’s only a 23-hour layover!)

Schwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

I arrive in Bangkok with no other plans than to sort my Burma visa. This takes a matter of days, and I enjoy Bangkok’s craziness, plethora of temples, and best-in-the-world street food. Less than a week later, I am boarding my Air Asia flight from Bangkok to Yangon.

I expect a slightly dated version of Bangkok to be awaiting me at the other end, but I end up in a city more reminiscent of what you find in India. After a Summer in Europe, I am certainly experiencing a level of culture shock, but it is softened by the kindness of the Burmese people.

Children playing In Bagan’s temple courtyards
Sunset over Bagan

My good friend, Christel, is working on her Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution and has an internship with ‘On the Move,’ a human rights organization based in Yangon. She is working with kids who have been displaced due to child trafficking. It is inspiring to see the work she is doing and to meet the people she is helping and working with. It is also a harsh wake-up call to the issues this country is facing. It is easy for people to travel here– to a country that has just opened up to tourism– see the temples of Bagan, the boats and fisherman at Inle Lake, and turn a blind eye to the heart-wrenching history this country has recently written. I am thankful to see both sides of the story.

Sunset at U Bein Bridge

We have the opportunity to travel together a bit, and connections are easy and smooth, which is surprising in a country just starting to cater to the tourist. We are fortunate to see a few good sunsets in Bagan, and we temple hop in Mandalay and watch the sunset over Ubein Bridge, while conversing with a monk who served eight years in prison after the Saffron Revolution.

Again, I have been made aware, through my travels, how fortunate I am for the life I was born into. I feel humbled, and hopeful that I might be able to make a difference through all I’ve seen, learned and experienced over the past four years. I leave Burma feeling the same way I did when I finished the Camino: with a full and heavy heart-full, from all of the adventures, but heavy, for the experiences that have opened my eyes to the life the less fortunate lead.

I make my way back to Atlanta on a long journey via Bangkok and Seoul. I arrive in time for Thanksgiving and Christmas with my family. It seems most appropriate to be at home during the time we ‘give thanks’ and I’m thankful, more than ever, to be with them. As the Grateful Dead would say, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” That pretty well sums up the past five months… Stay tuned for what 2014 holds.