As regular readers may know, I’ve been travelling full-time with my wife Genie since the beginning of 2015. We don’t have a home anywhere, just a second-hand Toyota in which we travel from place to place, mostly in and around Europe. We pay the bills by doing freelance writing and editing work as we go.
I’ve always meant to blog more about the places we go to, but I never seem to have time. So now that I have a quiet few days in a nice hotel on the coast of northern Greece, here’s a quick roundup of the places we’ve been in 2019.
We’re both quite private people, so you won’t see many selfies—I tend to point the camera outward. And I’ve got loads more to say about each place, but this is just a very quick overview of a whole year of travel, so it’ll be quite superficial. If you want to know more about anything, just ask!
Festivals in Eastern Europe
We started the year visiting some traditional festivals in Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Slovenia. It was fascinating to see how ancient pagan traditions, which I’ve read about in books like The Golden Bough, still exist in the 21st century.
We’d planned to stop for a while somewhere on the Croatian coast and focus on creative projects, but we ended up driving up and down this long, thin country in search of more things to see.
Austria offered plenty of Alpine beauty, of course, but one of the highlights was joining one of the weekly protest marches against the right-wing government. Its slogan was “Es ist wieder Donnerstag” (It’s Thursday again), and it brought together a bunch of different groups favouring a more hopeful vision of society. The one I liked the most was Omas Gegen Rechts (Grandmas Against the Right), but overall it was a good feeling to be marching and shouting alongside people who share my disquiet at the rightward lurch of European politics.
Also, for the booklovers among you, check out the photo in this gallery of the most beautiful library I’ve seen.
Most people just seem to go to Prague, which is a shame because Czechia has a surprising number of really beautiful towns, most of them much quieter and more relaxing than the capital, which I loved ten years ago but found to be quite unbearable now.
We couldn’t afford to do anything in Switzerland—by the time we’d booked a basement room in a budget hotel and bought a few necessities in the supermarket, our budget was already blown. So we kept it quick and couldn’t enjoy the country as we would have liked, but there was still plenty of beauty and great chocolate to enjoy, and we were lucky to run into the Labour Day parade in Zurich, which reminded us that the place is not all about wealth and luxury.
We did our main tour of Denmark back in 2016—this was just a quick stop to go to a friend’s confirmation, which was fun. We also spent a few days in Aarhus (whose art museum is pictured on the right) and drove out to a beach where a sculptor had made creative use of some old WW2 bunkers.
Wow. I knew almost nothing about the Faroe Islands before visiting, and the place really took my breath away. The landscapes are just stunning, and I loved the peace and stillness. We struggled a bit to make connections with people until the last day, when a lovely Faroese man and his Ivorian wife welcomed us into their home for a memorable dinner.
Well, this was a disappointment. Everyone in the world (or at least everyone on the internet) seems to love Iceland, and I was so excited about going there. We did see some beautiful things, but we tend to be more interested in culture and seeing how people live, and that was very difficult to do here. Plus the driving distances were huge, and it became a pattern of “drive for hours with nothing of interest to see, get out of the car and see something beautiful with about a thousand other foreign tourists, drive for hours, stay in overpriced accommodation with zero hospitality, then do the same again the next day…”
Wow again. Beautiful landscapes, peace, stillness, beauty, midnight sun. We met some wonderful people who welcomed us and invited us into their homes and shared their Inuit culture and their National Day celebrations with us. There’s a tough history of Danish colonisation here and a lot of contemporary social problems—one of the towns we visited has the highest suicide rate in the world. And people told us the climate is changing so quickly here that their habits and ways of life are having to change too—the mayor of three settlements in eastern Greenland said he can’t visit the other two towns for months because the ice is no longer strong enough to cross by dog sled.
We had a great time driving all over Ireland, starting in the southeast corner and working our way up to Northern Ireland and the divided city of Belfast.
Just a quick stop on our way across Europe for the Ducasse d’Ath, a summer festival whose main draw is “The Savage”, a white man in blackface, with a ring through his nose and chains around his wrists, emitting guttural screams to the cheers of the crowd. Local people, outraged at claims that the depiction is racist and should be removed from UNESCO’s heritage list, have taken to wearing “Je Suis Sauvage” T-shirts.
We drove very quickly to Greece and got the depressing Belgian experience out of our systems with a week of relaxation and hospitality.
We actually saw Turkey in two stages: first we drove across the Black Sea coast from west to east, continuing into Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Then, on the way back from the Caucasus, we drove through the south and centre of the country, working our way back through Istanbul into Greece again.
Because Armenia’s borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey are closed, we had to cross Georgia three times. We entered at Batumi, drove across into Azerbaijan, back to Tbilisi and down into Armenia, and then back across Georgia and into Turkey again.
We had some wonderful experiences, notably relaxing in the Akhasheni wine region, visiting a Yazidi temple in Tbilisi and meeting Vainakh people in the Pankisi Gorge, but overall it was quite a tough experience. Georgia has a growing far right, and on many occasions the hostility to us as an interracial couple was tangible. Add vicious homophobia and misogyny to the mix, and it’s not a place I can recommend.
Azerbaijan offered a similar mixture of great experiences and truly awful ones. We’d always wanted to see the Caspian Sea, and we got to do that on our anniversary, which was great, and we enjoyed some traditional rural hospitality in the village of Kerkench, but overall this was a country I was happy to leave.
After our experiences in Azerbaijan and Georgia, we were dreading Armenia, but it turned out to be great. Great landscapes, great food, and most importantly, people treated us like normal human beings.
Up Next in 2020
We plan to take it easy in Greece for a while to recover from all that travel, and then we’ll head to Belgrade, which we visited in 2015 and loved. We want to move more slowly for a while and give more priority to our creative work.
Then, later in the year, we hope to visit Russia and the “Stans”, but we have to do more research on that and check out the visa requirements and so on. In any case, you can probably ignore this whole section, because one constant in the past five years is that we almost never follow our plans.