After a seven-month journey in 2015 that took me to faraway destinations on the continents of South America and Southeast Asia, in 2016 I decided to stick a bit closer to home. I embarked on four trips during the year: flying to the hip, vibrant city of Berlin to soak up some history and culture, roadtripping up the coast road of Croatia, a sunshine holiday on the Algarve and a festive break to Vilnius in Lithuania. Here are my highlights.
Embracing the open road: Driving up the Adriatic highway
In the summer we decided to embark on a road trip up the Adriatic highway in Croatia. At the time it seemed like the best way to see everything we wanted to, but we had no idea how beautiful it would be, or just how much enjoyment embracing the open road would add to our journey.
We motored from Dubrovnik to Zagreb against a dreamy backdrop of cloudless skies and terracotta rooftops, the aquamarine ocean glittering to our left. We'd created a flexible itinerary and booked our accommodation online as we travelled, which allowed us to spend an extra night in Zadar, and to visit Trogir and Pag, which we'd not initially planned to do. It also meant we could stop off whenever we saw anything interesting, or if we wanted to grab a bite to eat or enjoy a picnic in idyllic surrounds.
Flying into Dubrovnik, we picked up our rental car from the airport's car park. The car rental huts are very easy to find, and we paid a little more for a sat nav, making it easier to navigate our way up the country. After travelling from Dubrovnik through Split, Brac, Trogir, Zadar, Pag, Plitvice and Zagreb, we dropped our hire car off at Zagreb airport and caught an internal flight back to Dubrovnik.
Living like a local: Eating and drinking in Berlin
Early in 2016 I took a winter break to Berlin to visit a friend who was living in the unique, culture-rich city. Staying with someone who lives in your destination adds a feeling of authenticity to your trip, ensuring you avoid tourist traps and hit up the bars and restaurants the locals love. This wasn't my first trip to the German capital, but this time I really felt like I experienced "the real Berlin".
We spent an incredible night drinking wine in Weinerei, which is located in Mitte. The whole place is decked out with plush armchairs and open fires, and smoke from hundreds of cigarettes hangs in the air. The vibe is very cosy but totally hip.
Weinerei operates on a "pay as you feel" pricing system. You pay €2 to get a glass, and then are free to top up from any of the bottles reclining in wine buckets around the bar. Upon leaving there is no bill - you decide how much you want to pay. When I asked my Berlin-residing friend Craig how the establishment could afford to be so trusting, he said:
"Germans would never think of not paying."
We ended up paying around €30 in total, which I imagine is approximately what we would have paid for the wine in any pub in the proximity.
The next day, recovering from all the (sort of) free wine, we visited Spindler Restaurant - an upmarket brunch joint - for poached eggs and prosecco. With its riverside location and airy, clean aesthetic, it was the perfect antidote to a night on the "wein".
From there we took a tram back to Kreuzberg to Tante Lisbeth for a game of nine-pin bowling in the retro 1960s Kegelbahnen that is hidden downstairs. Visitors should book in advance to ensure they get a chance to bowl in this charming time capsule of an alley.
That night Craig took us to Primitiv Bar in Friedrichshain, and I've never felt more in Berlin. Red velvet curtains and dim lighting gave this bar a glamorous 1920s feel, as if an old-time cabaret star was about to take the stage. The music was rockabilly, swing and rock n roll, and relaxing in this bar with a few cheap beers was a great way to end our evening.
Vilnius Christmas market: Mulled wine in the snow
Just before Christmas, I journeyed to Vilnius, the chilly capital of Lithuania.
Insofar as festive holidays go, it's difficult to get more Christmassy than Vilnius, with its dusting of snow, cosy bars complete with warming spirits and roaring fires and - vitally - it's enchanting Christmas market.
Set out around a giant, bedazzled Christmas tree, the market takes the form of a circle of matching wooden huts, all of which are painted white and decked out with greenery and twinkling angels. These huts are packed to the brim with gifts and treats, from baubles, candles and traditional wooden toys to chocolate, mince pies and mulled wine. Strings of purple lights stretch from the top of the tree down to the top of each hut, and Christmas carols drift out into the night.
We wandered down one night to soak up the atmosphere, via a couple of cute little bars that we couldn't resist stopping at en route. I can honestly say I've never felt more festive than when I was standing by the tree with a mince pie and a cup of sweet mulled wine, as snow gently fell. It was the perfect antidote to the more stressful side of Christmas and really restored some of the magic of the festive season for me.
A hike around Plitvice's enchanting waterfalls
I've seen some magical waterfalls in my life - from majestic rainbow-peppered Iguazu falls to the picture-perfect turquoise waters of Laos' Kuang Si. It's safe to say, however, that Plitvice National Park boasts some of the most spectacular falls in the world.
I'd give visitors to Plitvice two pieces of advice: wear waterproof clothing and prepare for a hike. The day we visited the rain was coming down heavily, causing the lakes to flood, and we were wearing just pumps and flimsy waterproof ponchos. However, even this could not detract from the natural beauty all around us, which seemed straight out of a fairytale.
We wandered along Plitvice's rickety wooden walkways as huge waterfalls thundered down near us, crystal-clear rivers shimmered in the sunlight, and tiny brooks trickled alongside our feet. The views were simply incredible, and despite the large amount of walking required, it was a peaceful, dreamy day among some of nature's most beautiful features.
Exploring bohemian Berlin
Artsy, vibrant and home to legions of creative millennials, Berlin is the cultural capital of Germany where almost anything goes. The corner shops have bottle openers on the counters, allowing you to buy a beer for your walk, thought-provoking graffiti blankets the stark walls of East Berlin, and everywhere you turn, you are surrounded by history.
Whether you want to learn about the city during WWII, you're more interested in the era of the Berlin Wall, or you want to get a feel for Berlin as it is today, a free walking tour is the way to do it. This fascinating capital has layers upon layers of history - and you need a local expert to help you unravel them.
Sandeman's New Europe offers brilliant free walking tours of the capital. All you have to do is show up at 11am or 1pm outside the Starbucks near the Brandenburg gate. Tours last 3.5 hours and are thoroughly fascinating, highlighting things about the city you never would have noticed otherwise.
One of my favourite days this year was taking one of these tours in Berlin. We visited the Brandenburg Gate, Holocaust Memorial, Checkpoint Charlie, former Luftwaffe building (now a tax office) and the Berlin Wall, among other points of interest. The tour was relatively long (around three hours), but everything we saw was so intriguing and rooted in history that at no point was I bored.
We followed the tour up with a trip to the Reichstag, and climbed up into the spectacular dome. You have to book well in advance to do this, but the incredible architecture of the dome, along with the incredible history of the Reichstag, makes it worth going to the extra trouble.
Drinking and diving at Dubrovnik's Buza Bar
Through a tiny tunnel in Dubrovnik's ancient city walls, away from the endless crowds of tourists, lies a haven of sorts. The city's famous Buza Bar balances on the rocks at the very edge of the city, serving Pan and Ožujsko to sun-drenched revellers, who lounge on the concrete slabs atop the rocks and dive into the refreshing waters below. Visiting was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my year.
After a morning of sightseeing in Dubrovnik, where the temperature was hovering around 38 degrees Celsius, we were delighted to spot Buza from where we were stood on the city walls. We spent an idyllic afternoon and early evening sunbathing on the rocks, diving into the cool sea whenever we got too hot, to a soundtrack of chillout music, Croatian beer in hand. It was at the same time relaxing and euphoric. The fact that we were in such a historic setting, with the golden walls rising up behind us, only made the experience feel all the more special.
Sampling Lithuanian national dishes: Fried bread anyone?
If you've ever wanted an excuse to eat unhealthy food and endless carbs, go to Lithuania. The country's national dishes are deliciously bad for you - and we certainly made the most of them on our trip to Vilnius, while convincing ourselves - over our third plate of potato pancakes - that we were merely "experiencing the culture".
My favourite dish was probably kepta duona - known as the Lithuanian national snack - which is simply fried bread with a cheese or garlic sauce. The nation has a - frankly fantastic - genre of food known as užkandžiai prie alaus, which is literally translated as "snacks to beer". This oily fried bread is the original "snack to beer" and I can confirm it is delicious, and incredibly moreish.
Other favourites include potato pancakes - known as "blynai" - which usually come with a dollop of sour cream, and potato dumplings, or "cepelinai" in Lithuanian.
One of the best restaurants at which to experience an authentic Lithuanian dining experience is Forto Dvaras, located on Vilnius' Pilies Street. Not only is the food delicious, but the restaurant is comprised of an underground network of rooms, which makes you feel like you're eating in a particularly cosy cave.
Tapas and beach life in Tavira
This summer I jetted off for some sun, sand and tapas in Tavira, a quiet gem of Portugal's Algarve region. This sunshine break was relaxing and relatively unadventurous - but that was sort of the point. As much as you may enjoy adventure holidays and hardcore treks, sometimes you just need to lie on a beach for a week with a book and a beer. Tavira was the perfect location for this.
It was extremely hot, with the temperature constantly threatening to bypass 40 degrees Celsius, and unfortunately our accommodation was lacking a swimming pool. However, Tavira island - complete with a huge beach - was just a short boat ride away. We spent a relaxing few days lounging on sunbeds on this huge beach, drinking beer, reading novels and doing absolutely nothing else. It was delightful.
Tavira also deserves a nod for its fantastic food scene. If you love tapas (and I do!), there are a variety of restaurants to fulfil all your dining needs. D'Gusta was definitely one of my favourite tapas joints, with a holiday highlight being tucking into this eatery's small dishes along with a bottle of Pinot Grigio as we sat by Gilao River.
At Tavira Lounge we sat on the balcony and enjoyed our tapas with a beautiful view of the old town. Meanwhile Aquasul is right in the heart of the action, and diners enjoy a wide range of mouthwatering cuisine as they sit under twinkling lights on one of Tavira's many picturesque streets.
Visiting the Republic of Uzupis: "Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday"
In the middle of Vilnius sits an unique neighbourhood known as the Republic of Uzupis. Home to artists, creatives and bohemians, in 1997 the district decided to cut itself off from the rest of Vilnius, declaring itself the Republic of Uzupis.
The republic has its own flag, president, cabinet of ministers, currency, an army of around 11 people and a constitution. There are a number of haphazard art installations scattered along the riverbank. Recognised by no government in the world, it is unclear as to whether the republic is meant to be tongue-in-cheek or totally serious. Like most visitors, I would hazard a guess that it is supposed to be a bit of both.
To gain entry to the republic, you have to smile, and if you do so you can get a stamp in your passport. The constitution includes stipulations such as:
- "Everyone has the right not to be loved, but not necessarily."
- "Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday."
- "A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of nee (sic)."
However, it also has more serious parts, including:
- "Everyone has the right to have faith."
- "No-one has the right to violence".
There's not loads to do in Uzupis, but it's a very interesting place to wander around, and you can sit in one of its cosy bars for a pint and reflect on how such a unique place came into being.
Swimming off the crystal-clear coast of Brac
Not all travel highlights involve a huge landmark or UNESCO world heritage site, and one of my favourite moments abroad this year was pretty simple.
We took a ferry from Split in Croatia to the island of Brac, which is famed for its delicious olive oil. One morning we took a basket of pastries, bread and Brac olive oil and hopped on our rented bicycles to find an idyllic location for our picnic. It turned out Brac was not short of secluded, picturesque locations.
We ended up in a private white pebble cove, shaded by coastal rocks, with our own slice of crystal clear ocean to swim in. There were no fish, sea creatures or seaweed anywhere to be seen - just gorgeous, aquamarine water seemingly all the way back to the Croatian mainland.
That morning was spent in the sunshine, eating and having the best swim of my life.
2017 travel highlights
After a 2016 travel itinerary made up of European destinations, I'm excited to be going further afield in this year with a trip to Sri Lanka.
We're planning to spend two weeks travelling around the country on the nation's famed trains, using Colombo as a base. We'll be hitting up some of Sri Lanka's major beaches and historical hotspots, and are both excited and nervous to scale Adam's Peak for sunrise.