Although 2014 is still my definitive Year of Travel to date, 2016 will be known as the Year of Accidental Travel. While most of my 2014 trips were deliberate, fairly well-planned and/or well-executed, this year’s journeys were done more in the “fly by the seat of my pants” style. And in the process I set my foot for the first time ever on THREE!!! parts of the world — Asia, Africa, the Middle East — where I haven’t planned venturing out in the forseeable future.
My first trip of the year, to India, was so last minute that I only received the necessary visa two hours before departing for the airport. My second, Tunisia, was a last minute alternative after I missed my planned holiday in Thailand.
The next three trips — to London and Paris and London again — were a result of last-minute work demands. Then came the summer and with it the one anticipated travel event of the year, to a conference in Brussels, but adjacent to it was another substitution and an unplanned jolt to the Alsace region of France, instead of a long-dreamt-about food tour of Dijon (no regrets though, as you will see).
All was quiet on the travel front for a few months until in October I decided to holiday in Cyprus – a destination that barely registered on my radar before a friend moved there over the summer. Rather unusually, I left any and all plans and itineraries in the hands of my friends.
And then came November, and six stops in three weeks: Washington DC/Alexandria, VA, Rhode Island, New York City, a three-day return to Moscow, then London on a two-day notice and finally, Copenhagen, Denmark. This was my first experience with travel fatigue. To be honest, I always thought that people who complained about too much work travel and being unable to stray beyond the hotel-car-meeting itineraries and about not knowing in which place they were anymore, were totally full of it — until I became one of them.
But all’s well that ends well, and now that I am parked back in Moscow for the next three weeks, it’s fun to look back at the mad dashes and cool discoveries of 2016. To the recap!
New Delhi, INDIA
Trip High: The culture shock of it all. I’ve never traveled outside of Europe or North America before (a weekend at Casa De Campo in the Dominican Republic notwithstanding). India was as different as I could have hoped — elephants causing traffic jams, clouds of colorful saris, centuries-old Islamic architecture, watermelon juice for breakfast, a visit to Swaminarayan Akshardham – an absolutely epic Hindu temple carved with 148 nearly life-sized elephants…
Trip Low: The devastating poverty of New Delhi. Bone-thin people and animals sleeping on the side of the road. Being obsessively afraid to ingest a drop of tap water in the shower. It was definitely a “check your privilege” kind of experience.
Best Thing I Ate: Sweet and sour corn chowder; a green chili pepper (by accident) that made me black out — I practically had to be resuscitated with mango juice and spoonfuls of brown sugar.
H: My very first trip to Africa and the Arab world. This was the perfect trip for relaxing: massages, facials, spa treatments that made me shed my skin and a couple of limbs (Thalassotherapy in INTENSE, people). Turquoise & white buildings that is incredibly soothing. My first souk shopping experience! Gorgeous tunics that are now my go-to for beach vacations and glamorous parties. Stunning Mediterranean sunrises.
L: My history of equestrian misadventures continued when my horse got spooked by an exhaust back fire and I fell — just when I started feeling comfortable enough again in the saddle.
BTIA: Tunisia, at least that part of it, wasn’t particularly impressive food wise (lots of resorts catering to international tourists with pizza and salads), but I had some great couscous, seafood and local wine.
H: My first time in London during spring! Everything in bloom. My new favorite hotel – Blakemore – and setting up a London “home base” in Bayswater. Exploring Islington with Annie. The London Zoo – very compact and VERY expensive.
L: As ever, not enough time in one of my favorite cities. But I could do without the zoo entrance fee next time.
BTIA: Turkish Eggs at Kopapa (on recommendation from Expat Edna) might be my favorite thing I’ve eaten in London ever, period. Also, pretty much everything at Pachamama, a new Peruvian restaurant in Marylebone. Small plates, great flavor, beautiful presentation, warm atmosphere.
H: A long-overdue re-do came unexpectedly but delivered everything I could have hoped for. Paris was practically the same as I left it 13 years ago — it surprised me how comfortably I moved around all over the city without a map, revisiting favorite cafes and sights — yet a totally different experience for a grown-up (with a discretionary spending budget). While NYC and Moscow are constantly changing and many London pockets are buzzing with development, the French capital delivers a sense of permanence and familiarity. Among the familiar faves – a visit to the Sainte Chapelle, a stroll through Ile St Louis, getting caught in the rain in Montmartre, a glass of wine at Place de la Contrescarpe in Quartier Latin, and the grotto in the Jardins du Luxembourg.
L: Again, not enough time, but in a different way than in London, where I can hang out in perpetuity. I have quite a bit of history with Paris, but not so many great memories. Another week or so would have allowed me to revisit all my old haunts, discover what I had previously ignored or avoided, and overwrite my Paris history entirely.
BTIA: I finally had the famous Berthillon ice cream on Ile St Louis!
H: Ok, so I actually went to London again in June but managed a small getaway that was a highlight all its own. A visit to the Windsor castle — with a proper tour and everything — and a hike through the surrounding countryside on a gorgeous summer day made me fall in love with rural England. I have a feeling that this is just the beginning of an intense future love affair. Also – baby’s first Pimm’s.
L: Shell-shock from waking up in the UK that just decided to leave the EU. The 52-48% vote flipped from Remain to Brexit between when I went to bed at 1 am and my 6 am wake up call.
BTIA: I hit up the ethnic food scene pretty hard on this trip, especially in Bayswater. During one particularly memorable lunch I binged on dimsum, with the highlight being pumpkin-shaped hard dumplings (pastries?) filled with spicy duck breast.
H: My very first Belgian fries – with the specialty Belgian sauce. Oh, and the ridiculous mahogany hotel room with floor to ceiling mirrors on all the walls. I think they were going for “classy” but it was more “champagne room”, if you know what I mean…
L: Being stuck in a dark tunnel and almost missing my flight because there were people on the railroad tracks. Another “check your privilege” moment.
BTIA: The fries with the specialty spicy mayo were definitely worth the gazillion calories.
Colmar, Riquewihr, Ribeauville – Alsace, FRANCE
H: EVERYTHING!!! This is a place of my dreams. Fairy tale houses, casually strolling storks, never-ending rosé, brutal (for someone so not fit) hikes to the ruins of thousand-year old castles, spectacular views of rolling hills and medieval villages, wildflowers and endless vineyards, friendly snakes and otters, speaking French to incredibly friendly French people, midnight beers in Colmar while cheering in the Euro Cup, and just feeling insanely fortunate to be living this life, and counting my blessings. Alsace has everything: food, wine, history, picture perfect settings, museum and castles, hiking trails and horses. I could have easily spent a week going on different nature walks bookended by exploring the most whimsical towns and villages on the planet.
L: The local white wines tasted a bit odd to me – I prefer the German Rieslings from the nearby Rhine Valley. I know, what a thing to nitpick.
BTIA: Alsace food was a bit of an odd combination of German and French — think giant sausage inside a crepe — so I stuck to the classics and picnicked on local cheeses, salami, baguette, tomatoes and rosé on the side of the mountain.
H: Just when Moscow started edging closer to the freezing temps, I skipped town to lounge around on the beach and in crazy warm waters, which was great in and of itself. But discovering hidden, untouristed villages in the Troodos mountains with my friend and her husband was a great off-the-beaten-path adventure. Cyprus has a lot of potential as a travel destination, and not just for beach & resort crowd — it’s one to watch.
L: Having to work way too much for what’s supposed be a total “unplug” holiday.
BTIA: Cyprus is a total craft cocktail destination – who knew? Also, country salads with fried haloumi cheese and probably a bucket of tahini sauce that I put on EVERYTHING. ALSO also honey-dipped doughnut holes.
Washington, DC and Alexandria, VA, USA
H: Between middle school, high school and college, I spent about 5 years in the DC area, yet never even visited Alexandria, VA, just across the Potomac. Which is why I decided to set up camp there on this trip – and fell in love with the charming colonial Old Town.
L: The whole trip was a bit of a mess. Part of my luggage didn’t make it in till 3 weeks later. I was without a laptop or non-cash banking options for the first several days.
BTIA: Deep-fried avocado as part of my taco binge at Don Taco in Alexandria. Why aren’t there deep-fried avocados in everything???
All over Rhode Island, USA
H: A beautiful, sunny day spent riding in Goddard Park, through the groves of golden pines and along the beach, as well as visiting friends and family I haven’t seen in years (actually this applies to DC and NYC as well).
L: I got behind the wheel for the first time in three years and went horseback riding for the first time since my fall in Tunisia – both activities shaking me up quite a bit.
BTIA: It was an evening of the most ridiculous binging on the entirety of the Chinese takeout menu, plus pizza, Cheetos and Bud Light.
New York City, NY, USA
L: Falling in love with $12,000 blue chalcedony earrings #FirstWorldProblems.
BTIA: Vodka martinis and sweet potato fries at an Irish pub.
H/L: Speaking in front of the British Parliament is a thing that happened.
BTIA: I am now hooked on Itsu, a Japanese healthy eating chain. How can I not be? A big cup of spicy, hearty Chicken Jaipour soup has crystal noodles, char-grilled chicken, dash of Greek yoghurt, kombu, edamame & shaved green leek in a curried chicken broth – and only 273 calories! Also, they always have salmon sushi and sashimi, which is my forever-favorite.
H: The last trip of the year added a new European country to my roster. The people were exceptionally friendly and not at all reserved as I had expected (dang those Scandinavian stereotypes), plus every other guy looked like Thor. Perhaps sensing my appreciation of gorgeous blonde Norse deities, the weather god smiled upon me for a couple of hours – enough to get a sunlit shot of Nyhavn, Copenhagen’s iconic harbor.
L: Missing the Danish Crown Jewels because I could have never imagined a museum closing at 2 pm on a Saturday; prices that make London seem like a flea market; wind that freezes blood in your veins.
BTIA: Pulled pork burgers and Risalamande, a traditional Christmas dessert made with sweet, chilled rice pudding, berries and almonds.