My Travel Highlights of 2016

2017 is already here and my New Year’s resolutions have been made – along with an even larger bucket list than ever before. Seems like the more I travel, the hungrier I get for more. And the more I learn, the more I realize how little I once knew about the great world out there and all the people living in it. While 2016 was the year I traveled only within the borders of my continent, Europe, 2017 will take me to at least two others – and who knows where else destiny decides to take me this year?

2016 was a year filled with great highs as well as some lows. Unstable economy, feeling lonely as an expatriate in a foreign country, death in the family, losing touch with friends, pitching article after article to magazines with little result, getting criticized for putting so much time and effort into my blog when I “should be spending my time doing something more useful” – these events have caused a lot of stress, sadness and feeling of hopelessness for me. Traveling – and the love and support from my partner – gave me the strength I needed to be able to look back on 2016 as a great year instead of feeling like a complete failure.

Because…

I welcomed 2016 by watching the beautiful fireworks display in Warsaw, Poland with my family and my partner. We visited the Christmas market in the Old Town and danced the night away at the New Year’s gala in our hotel.

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I visited London, England for the first time in many years, and had a great time catching up with a friend who moved to London for work. We went salsa dancing, salsa eating (nachos) and visited all the touristic sites together.

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A romantic weekend trip to Copenhagen, Denmark was the Christmas present from me to my significant other. We stuffed our faces with Danish pastries, laughed our asses off while the fish tickled our toes at a duo fish spa, visited the castles and the little mermaid and enjoyed the snow – although I would have been happier if my partner hadn’t kept throwing snowballs at me.

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I visited Belgium for the first time…and second…and third. My partner and I embarked on plenty of amazing road trips this year and visiting certain destinations in Belgium was part of those trips. Romantic Bruges, charming Antwerp and multicultural Brussels. I’ve fallen in love with Belgium – and Belgian beer!

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And then there was the trip to Luxembourg in May. The surprise birthday present from my partner. We visited Luxembourg city, two castles elsewhere in the country and saw Hans Zimmer live in the amazing concert venue Rockhal. Probably the best birthday I’ve ever had.

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Late June and early July was spent traveling by train with my mother. From Oslo, Norway to Karlstad, Sweden – then back to Norway to visit Sandefjord and Kristiansand, before returning to Stavanger to spend a couple of days relaxing at home before returning to France. Photo below was taken while visiting Tungenes Fyr (lighthouse).

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The weekend of Bastille Day (14th of July) was spent visiting Saint Malo, Mont Saint-Michel, Dinan and Rennes in France. My partner and I watched the fireworks in Saint Malo, drank cider and ate delicious crêpes (the local Bretagne/Brittany specialty). Calories and carbs taste better in France than anywhere else.

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One of my biggest highlights of the year was to volunteer in Moldova. I got to know so many lovely people – volunteers and locals – and my host family was the nicest I could  ever have asked for. I also got to taste some amazing wine from the Purcari Winery while I was there. I’ve been spreading the word about how great Moldovan wine is, ever since.

 

Another great highlight was the writing retreat in Barcelona, Spain with Pink Pangea where I got to know like-minded travel writers – all women – explored the city of Barcelona and did a lot of soul searching as well. We laughed, shed some tears, plenty of hugs and shared our most personal stories – travel related and non-travel related. It was therapeutic and inspired me to not just become a better writer but a better person as well.

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In September my partner and I embarked on yet another road trip to a different part of France. This time to the southwest. We explored some spectacular caverns, enjoyed the local wines and visited idyllic and picturesque little towns. I have never taken as beautiful photos as I did in the southwest of France. No wonder so many people dream about this country, and so many writers find inspiration here.

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We didn’t spend longer than twenty-four hours at home before we were back on the road again. Well, towards the airport this time to catch a flight to Athens, Greece. The week in Athens was filled with food, historical ruins, food, more history and even more food. Greek cuisine is simply just too good!

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Winter Beer Day, Christmas markets and celebrating my parents wedding anniversary and my stepfather’s birthday was how we spent our long weekend in Hamburg, Germany…And taking pictures from the Elbphilharmonie concert hall. What a windy affair that was.

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And then there was December and all those Christmas markets. Paris (France), London (England), Reims (Champagne, France), Cologne (Germany) and Oslo (Norway). I didn’t get a white Christmas this year either, but I got so much more. So much more that mattered a lot more to me than snowflakes. Spending time at these markets with the people I care about, laughing, smiling and cheering while tasting local specialties – now that sure got me into the Christmas spirit! Photo below is from Oslo, Norway.

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Now, excuse me while I pack my bags to go to Marrakech, Morocco tomorrow. 2017 started in Trondheim, Norway and after a few days of rest in France I am now ready for new adventures!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Moldova: A small country with a big heart

Yesterday I wrote about my experience as a volunteer in Moldova in my diary. So if you want to know what a week of volunteering on a community development program in Moldova is like, read all about it here. I highly recommend Moldova both as a destination for your next volunteer project, but also as a destination for a future holiday.

So, if the country is that great, how come we never read about it in travel magazines or hear much about it in general?

So here’s my guess. Lack of marketing. Just like our tour guide at the award-winning prestigious Purcari Winery said; “The only difference between wine from Bordeaux and wine from our winery is marketing”.

Moldova was like a blank canvas to me, and I was ready to start painting a picture. My own picture, without any ideas or outside influences.

Let’s talk about wine, shall we?  Moldova has a well-established wine industry, and was in 2009 the twenty-second largest wine producing country in the world. In fact, 67 million bottles of wine are exported annually. A lot of the Moldovan wineries offer tours and wine tastings, and I got to visit one that offers all of that – and more. How about a night in one of Purcari Winery‘s luxury suites? Or a romantic dinner in their restaurant?

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Purcari Winery dates back to 1827 and still has their original wine cellars. If you want to relax in the sun before or after the wine tour, what place could possibly be better than here? You might even see a black swan there (not captured in the photo, though).

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While in Moldova, you should also visit Chisinau, the capital city. If you’re interested in handmade jewelry and macrame handbags, then check out the Chisinau Souvenir Bazaar. I didn’t take any pictures there, but I can assure you, you’ll love it. I bought a black macrame bag there, and now I can’t go anywhere without it. I love it.

Are there any nice parks in Chisinau?

Yes! I didn’t have time to visit more than two of them, as I was only in Chisinau on a day trip. But the parks I did visit were both lovely.  First we visited Stefan cel Mare Central Park.

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This is a memorial of Monarch Stefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great) who ruled Moldova between 1457 and 1504.

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The other park we visited was the lovely Parcul Dendrariu. A popular spot for wedding photography, couples photography and any other kind of photography where you want a gorgeous backdrop.

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On my last day in Moldova, I left Moldova without technically leaving Moldova. I think it depends who you ask. Let me explain.

I crossed the border from Moldova to Transnistria and stayed in Transnistria for a couple of hours. Maybe not even two hours. But just enough time to look around, buy a fridge magnet and return to Moldova.

Wait…. Doesn’t Moldova border to Ukraine and Romania, and nothing else?

Officially, yes. Transnistria is actually right there on the border between Moldova and Ukraine but is not recognized as its own country, and is only partially recognized as its own state – within Moldovan territory. They have their own currency, their own president, their own flag – and they speak Russian, not Romanian (Moldova).

Before visiting Transnistria, I was told to be careful with what I do, as there’s military soldiers everywhere. But as it turned out, the soldiers were all friendly and were smiling and helping us with directions. They are there to protect the citizens and make them feel safe. In other words, as long as you don’t break the law, you’re fine. I was also told it’s illegal to take pictures of any official buildings. Because of that, I was too scared to photograph anything at all, and ended up taking only one photo in Transnistria. Not even a good one. But at least I have one now. A photo taken from a bridge, of people sunbathing, swimming and having fun (although you can’t really see the people that well).

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The parks, the bazaar, the wineries – they are all good reasons to visit Moldova. But the main reason why I now love Moldova as much as I do, is because of the people. They are some of the friendliest and most hospitable people I’ve ever met. My host family, the local community – even strangers on the streets.

An old lady said to me in Romanian (and a Romanian speaker translated for me): “We are happy to see tourists here. Next time, bring your family and your friends. You are all welcome in Moldova”.