When we can travel again...
Updated: 4 days ago
It's June 2020 and we're in the middle of a global pandemic. It's safe to say that none of us are going on foreign holidays any time soon and that is breaking my heart no small bit. But we're alive and well and I'm truly grateful for that. These past few weeks I've been thinking a lot about travel, and what a huge part it has played in my life since I first set foot on a plane. Usually at this time of year we would be furiously planning our summer trip. This year I feel bereft.
The photograph above was taken at the Lake District. I love this picture because I can remember exactly how I felt at that moment - happy and completely in love with life. The sun was shining, I was with my best friends and we'd spent the day hiking in the most beautiful countryside. It was so peaceful; nothing but the soothing sounds of water lapping and birds singing. I've spent a lot of time recently looking through old photos and it's made me realise just how many of those 'life's great moments' have, for me, been associated with travel. I'm not just talking about the big stuff like the first sighting of the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State building, though of course they'll be imprinted on your mind forever. It's also the smaller everyday moments, the interactions with people, the food, the smells etc... that can often be the most evocative and I wanted to capture some of those here to inspire you for when we can take off again.
A love affair begins
Paris was where it all kicked off for me. I'd spent some time working in the (very) rural Corrèze region when I was 18 but my trip to the capital shortly after was when I totally caught the travel bug. Despite staying in the crappiest of hotels and having very little money, I was captivated and loved strolling through the different neighbourhoods and along the Seine. It was also when I realised that I liked having time to explore by myself and how liberating it is to find yourself alone in a foreign country, albeit in this instance for just a few hours.
My travelling companion didn't care so much for art so I headed for a solo trip to the Musée d'Orsay. I can still remember queuing to buy my ticket and then finally getting inside and being completely and utterly overawed. All the big guns - Van Goghs, Cézannes, Monets... I'd pored over those paintings in books but actually getting to see them in real life was something else.. My memories of those few hours are still vivid, even though it was over twenty years ago. And I still haven't grown tired of Paris, as you'll see from my most recent article here. It's been a completely different experience every time.
The travel bug
I knew from a young age that I wanted to see as much of the world as possible. Some of my earliest memories are from my granny's house: she had one of those View-Masters (remember those, children of the 70s and 80s?) into which you inserted a disc of small transparent color photographs on film - before your eyes would appear some of the world's most famous tourist attractions and travel views. I was obsessed with it and spent hours looking at some truly gaudy postcard-type images of Yosemite, Yellowstone National Park and New York City. But that was the start of it for me and that obsession has never waned.
Feeling the fear and doing it anyway
Travelling can be stressful and anxiety-inducing, especially nowadays having to deal with heightened airport security and baggage restrictions. Trying to squash your worldly belongings into a 10kg bag to avoid paying €500 (or something) to check in a suitcase, and deliberating between perfume or shampoo to squeeze into an impossibly small plastic bag is not my idea of fun. But these are small things. The thoughts of navigating public transport systems on arrival or a language barrier can be hugely off-putting and probably the reason why so many people opt for package holidays. It's all organised for you and there's nothing left to chance. I can understand that, especially if there are children to consider, but for me, the magic lies in those spontaneous decisions and the freedom to pick and choose what to do, where to stay and to wander off-grid as you see fit.
Finding your feet
Getting up on the first morning of a trip in a new country - that's one of my favourite feelings in the world. The possibilities are endless and freedom is yours. Heading to the local bakery to pick up some bread and pastries, or to the market for fruit and cheese is a good way to feel like less of a tourist and part of the local routine. It's also an easy way to get to know your neighbours. Queuing up and listening to the morning chatter or making small-talk always gives me a sense of place and it's a nice feeling after a few days when they start to recognise you, and you become part of their community, albeit for a short time.
I won't lie - planning a trip yourself takes time and often a lot of research, particularly if you're looking for something a bit special or different when it comes to accommodation. Well that was until I discovered this brilliant website - https://www.secretplaces.com/ They specialise in smaller independent, boutique-style hotels, guesthouses and self-catering apartments and I can honestly say, they've never let me down. In fact, I'd go so far as to say they've been responsible for so many of our holiday 'magic moments'. They feature only a very select number of options per location ranging from extravagant villas to rustic B&Bs. The places mentioned below were all discovered on this site. The guesthouse in the rural Médoc region of France was one such find. I remember throwing open the shutters upon waking every morning and hearing nothing but the sound of birds. At night the birds were displaced by a cacophony of cicadas. I loved padding across the grass in my bare feet and breathing in the clean air. We also rented bikes and used them to explore the surrounding vineyards. You can read the full story here.
Starry starry night
What could be better than lying on a hammock under the stars? This time we opted for a boutique guesthouse nestled within a forested nature reserve in Basque country, Spain. It was every bit as good as it sounds - luxury rooms with all mod-cons opening out onto a huge private terrace which housed aforementioned hammock. The sky was unbelievably clear, there wasn't a sound to be heard other than the usual countryside nocturnal rustlings, and overhead entertainment was provided by a spectacular canopy of stars. Utter and complete life-affirming bliss. If you like the sound of that, you can read all about it here.
Living out our childhood dreams...
....by sleeping in a treehouse in the beautiful Luberon area of Provence. An on-site pool and breakfast on the terrace were the added luxuries. If that sounds appealing, you can find out more here.
Finding a home away from home in Provence...
Our best find to date was La Maison de Frenê: a renovated 18th century house in the picturesque town of Vence, high in the hills of the Provence countryside. The house has just four uniquely decorated suites and as they say on their website, it will appeal to 'curious people and art and design lovers'. Apart of the spectacularly huge and comfortable rooms, filled with paintings, sculpture and art books, you will be treated like royalty by your hosts who want to make sure you have the best possible stay. And as for the breakfast - oh my!! Crusty bread, freshly-baked croissants, cheese, jam, fruits, cheese and coffee... need I say anymore. We fell head over heels with the town, the people and the guesthouse, so much so that we came back for a few days the following summer with friends in tow to celebrate my 40th birthday. You can read about Vence here.
Getting stuck in...
One good way to get a feel for a new place is to eat and drink where the locals hang out. Yes it's easier to opt for the place with a tourist menu but it's good to push a little outside your comfort zone. I can almost guarantee you'll get a much warmer welcome and have a far more memorable experience. Be brave - even without knowing the language, a big smile goes a long way. In Barcelona, almost twenty years ago, I remember heading out for breakfast that first morning and being slightly intimidated by the rough-and-ready local institutions with grumpy looking bar staff; where people stood at the counter while eating and having coffee, and then threw the napkins on the floor. I quickly came to realise that these were the BEST places to eat and to go for a drink. Firstly, they're far cheaper as they're not catering to the tourist market. Secondly, you'll be eating the food that local people eat. And lastly, you'll have better fun.
That first morning we picked a place at random. Armed with a very basic level of Spanish, we hopped up on stools at the counter and got a huge smile from the not-so-grumpy-after-all bar man. We ate Bocadillos con Queso - crusty bread brushed with oil and tomatoes and filled with Manchego. Simple but absolutely delicious, washed down with a couple of cafés con leche. We chatted with the bar man, enjoyed listening to the exuberant banter going on around us, and left feeling braver and with a renewed sense of adventure.
A case in point is Bodegas Castañeda - an absolute institution in Granada which can, quite frankly, look a little terrifying at first glance. It’s always jammed to the rafters and you wouldn't even think about trying to get a table – standing at the bar is where it’s at. You need to be prepared to elbow your way to the front, find a spot and shout your order. I mention this place as we had such a great time here - the atmosphere is noisy and boisterous but good fun, and the food was outstanding; some of the best tapas I've ever eaten. My point is - if we'd been put-off by the intimidating first impression, we'd have missed out on one of the experiences of our trip. Cheap as chips too.
Taking a trip on your own is something that everyone should do at least once. There's nothing quite so liberating as waking up in a new country and not having to go along with anyone else's plans or schedules. You're free to do what you want, when you want to. I took a solo trip to Australia over ten years ago and vividly remember waking up on my first morning in Melbourne bursting with excitement for having a few days to myself before meeting up with a friend. I found a groovy little café just minutes from my guesthouse which became part of my morning ritual - sitting in the window with my book or people watching, drinking a flat white, enjoying my breakfast and planning my day. I walked everywhere and spent happy hours pottering through the diverse neighbourhoods and visiting galleries and museums, soaking up all of the culture the city had to offer.
Unforgettable moments - the big stuff
I landed in Sydney a week later and experienced one of those 'wow' moments as I took in my first view of the Opera House. It was pretty much the first thing I saw as I made my way from train to ferry and it packed a visceral punch. It really is one of those extraordinary feats of architectural and sculptural beauty which needs to be seen in reality. That first Friday evening I met up with my friend and her colleagues for drinks after work. The venue - the outdoor Opera House bar with views of Harbour Bridge lit up across the bay. It was such a surreal experience to sit enjoying a G&T with two of the world's most iconic structures right there as a backdrop. It gave me a little thrill every day to see that Sydney skyline looming ahead as I traveled in and out of town on the ferry.
Actually as a side note, the Opera House tour is fantastic and I'd highly recommend to anyone visiting Sydney. The history of the building is absolutely fascinating.
Another jaw-dropping moment for me on that trip was taking a glass-bottomed cable car across the valley of the Blue Mountains, a few hours from Sydney. I'm petrified of heights so it also ranks as one of the most terrifying moments of my life but, oh my, it was worth it for uninterrupted 360 degree views across the most spectacular blue-tinged landscape.
There have been many life-affirming travel moments in my life. I've been lucky enough to see the sun rise above the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia; one of the most heart-stoppingly beautiful sights imaginable. The spectacular views from high in the hills of Bach Mã National Park, a protected area in central Vietnam, made the 4am hike in the pitch-dark totally worth it. We sat on a rock and watched as the sky turned pink and slowly changed from night to day, revealing a vast mountainous and lush-green landscape.
You'll have to excuse the quality of the photos from Asia by the way. They were taken before I had a decent camera.
A few days earlier we'd spent a night on a boat in Halong Bay, a World Heritage site of extreme natural beauty with thousands of limestone outcrops and islets topped with trees. My abiding memory of this place however is having ring-side seats to the most dramatic thunderstorm I've ever witnessed. It lit up the sky and illuminated the rocks as they jutted up out of the bay. We were traveling with a fantastic bunch of people we'd picked up along the way and we staying up late and chatting, drinking warm beer (the electricity had failed at this point) and listening to a Boney-M tape on a battery-operated player that had been left on the boat. It still ranks as one of the funniest and most memorable nights of my life.
Memorable places - a snapshot of Europe's best destinations
I'm currently stockpiling ideas for my travels next year and my notebooks are filling with ideas by the day, mainly thanks to other people's very attractive Instagram pics. Narrowing them down is going to be a major issue. Will it be the verdant hills and mountains of Montenegro, or the colourful streets of Porto or Lisbon? Maybe staying in a cave hotel in Mattera, or a rustic cottage in one the quiet hilltop towns in Greece, spending our evenings eating baked feta with cherry tomatoes and drinking ceramic jugs of wine? Decisions decisions...
If you're struggling to focus your travel plans for next year, let me throw some options out there to tickle your fancy. These are the places that have refused to budge from my mind; the ones I want to go back to again and again: a combination of iconic sights, vibrant cities and jaw-dropping vistas sitting alongside the simpler, everyday perfect moments that truly make a holiday. Over to you...
The last bastion of Islam in Spain: a fortress, palace and city all in one. Meaning 'Red Castle' in Arabic, this immense complex sits high in the hills overlooking the city of Granada with spectacular views of the Sierra Nevada as a backdrop. It became a Christian court when Ferdinand and Isabella conquered the city of Granada in 1492 but the richness and intricacy of Islamic decoration thankfully still remains. In typical Moorish style, there are any number of water features dotted throughout the complex, intended as spaces for rest and contemplation. There is something truly spiritual about this place so to beat the crowds, get there early. We were there for 8am and it was perfect - still & silent with sounds of bird song ringing in the air.
Tip: make your way to the viewing point at Mirador San Nicolas in the charming Albaicín district for uninterrupted views of the full complex. It gets busy up there but it's worth it, especially at sunset, to get the full effect. The buildings seem to glow from within and mark a striking contrast to the cool, often snow-topped peaks of the Sierra Nevada in the background.
Ravello and the Amalfi Coast
Taken from the fabulous Villa Rufolo perched high in the hills overlooking the Amalfi Coast, I think the images probably speak for themselves. It’s just the most spectacular setting, with views I'd only dreamed about before. The villa hosts both art exhibitions and open-air concerts. While we were lucky enough to catch Mimmo Paladino's poignantly beautiful sculpture show, we missed out on catching a concert. Just gives us a reason to go back. You can find out more here.
Oh how we loved this city. It's an absolute cracker and has everything going for it: beautiful buildings, majestic squares, oodles of vibey bars & restaurants, picturesque river walks, friendly people & bags of atmosphere. It's somewhere we could imagine ourselves settling and living happily ever after. You can read all about experience here.
Córdoba, Andalusia, Spain
One of most picturesque cities in Spain, yet often overlooked by visitors in favour of Seville or Málaga, Córdoba is the perfect destination for a long weekend. Its Islamic heritage leaves behind one of the most wondrous feats of architectural mastery: the Mezquita, which should be top of any visitor's list. It comes with a unique history - originally built as a mosque in the 10th century, it later housed a Christian cathedral in the 16th century. The elements of both sit side by side and the juxtaposition marks this as one of the most fascinating buildings in Europe, not to mention one of the most impressive. It's absolutely enormous and never feels crowded, despite the large number of visitors. The beautiful Patio de los Naranjos marks the entrance and is redolent with the scent of orange trees.
Another must-visit is the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos - a palace constructed under a Catholic king but in a Mudéjar style, in keeping with its original Moorish site origins. The gardens are vast and truly breathtaking - an oasis of tranquility in the heart of the city.
Tip: maybe consider travelling off-peak. The temperatures in July and August can be truly stifling. If you want to eat and drink where the locals hang out, then avoid the areas around the Mezquita and the Alcázar, and head for the cafés and bars along the riverside instead. Also make sure to take a wander through the flower-filled Calleja de las Flores and the charming Jewish quarter La Juderia.
Mantua, northern Italy
A glittering jewel in Lombardy's crown, Mantua is our automatic response when people ask us to recommend somewhere special in Italy. I've written about it extensively here but this is my short and snappy overview. It's a compact, elegant and beautifully preserved city but packs a huge punch: there is a staggeringly high number of buildings of serious architectural prowess including the Palazzo Ducale and castle of San Giorgio; the church of Sant' Andrea, St Peter's cathedral and last not not least, Palazzo Te.
This is a little glimpse of what you can expect in Palazzo Te, world-famous for its remarkable illusionistic wall paintings and frescoes which surround you on all sides. It's an absolute tour-de-force and one you'll talk about for years to come.
Aside from all that wonderful architecture and culture, Mantua is a mecca for foodies and there are any number of terrific places to eat and drink. Not only that, its lakeside location is pretty spectacular too.
Nomade by Jauma Plensa, Antibes, Côte d’Azur
Standing proudly on the restored waterfront fort at Antibes, this is the work of the incomparable Spanish artist Jaume Plensa. He is my all-time favourite public sculptor and Nomade was on my bucket list for a long time. I finally made the trip on my 40th birthday - a short but very picturesque coastal train trip will take you from Nice to Antibes in no time. It’s utterly stunning and even more breathtaking in reality with sweeping sea views of the French riviera as a backdrop . if you need some beauty in your life today check out his website here.
I should also mention that Antibes itself is a lovely town. Unlike some of its neighbours which have fallen victim to mass development, Antibes has retained its charm: the narrow streets of the old town are alluring with a vivid palette of brightly painted buildings & overhanging plants. You can also visit the rather lovely Picasso Museum whose courtyard overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. For lunch, enjoy the perfect galette washed down with a refreshing Spritz in any of the little cafes in the old town.
Collioure is one of those places that makes you walk around with a big stupid grin on your face. Let's start with the ridiculously pretty views: the buildings of the old town sit right at the edge of the sea, including an 800 year old chateau and the church of Notre Dame des Anges with its iconic pink domed bell-tower. There are few better memories in my life than sitting on the beach on our last evening with a takeaway pizza and bottle of wine, watching the sky change colour and the sun drop behind the buildings.
There truly is a special quality to the light in this part of France and I can see why artists flocked here in the early part of the 20th century. You couldn't help but be inspired to paint. Climbing up to some of the viewing points on the outskirts of town is recommended to take in the full vista, especially at sunrise or sunset.
The warren of tiny streets that make up the old town are cobbled, colourful, vibrant and very appealing. There are loads of great restaurants with some excellent seafood on offer, and the regional wines are delicious. If you're thinking of a romantic weekend or even week away, it couldn't be more perfect. If you'd like some more info, click here.
And that's all folks. These are some of the stand-out memories for me but in truth, they are just the tip of the iceberg. I've fallen in love with so many places in my travel life, not least Rome and Paris, two cities I could happily return to once a year for the rest of my life, but I wanted to put some alternative options out there for you to explore. Happy planning! Here's to a time when we can travel again....