Tag Archives: spain

How it came to this…

The purpose of this site is to allow me to document my thoughts and experiences as an outsider living in Northern Ireland, as well as to reflect on the travel I do in general, and to share it with anyone who might happen to be interested. Certainly, there are far more places in the world that I want to visit than just the ones I have been to so far, but I thought I’d do a little run-down of some of those places I’ve been fortunate enough to make it to up to this point. Each and every one of them has been worth the effort and left a lasting impression.

United States (April 2000) 125px-Flag_of_the_United_States.svg

My first ever trip abroad was certainly an extravagant one! In spring of 2000, my high school embarked on a skiing trip to California which included a day’s sightseeing in San Francisco. I’d never been remotely interested in skiing before, but the trip as a whole seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. It’s unfortunate that, having been 15 at the time, I don’t have what I would call fully formed impressions – or even memories – of that adventure. I do recall being in awe of San Francisco in terms of its geography and location. I vaguely recall being a little disappointed with Alcatraz. And I definitely remember it feeling unseasonably cold for April as we explored the city under leaden skies on a day punctuated by occasional showers.

Although I enjoyed the skiing aspect of the holiday, it’s not something I would go out of my way to do again. For me, the experience of having my eyes opened to a new world and of meeting new people, allied to the breathtaking scenery of the Sierra Nevada mountains, will always be what stands out as the enduring part of the trip.

Spain (August 2002) Flag_of_Spain.svg

This would arguably have to be the least obviously adventurous travel experience I’ve yet had. At 17 and abroad for the first time without any kind of adult supervision, I wasn’t old enough for the bar scene. I stayed with a friend in the forgettable, slightly dreary resort of L’Estartit on the Costa Brava. (NB – I’m aware this is in Catalonia but have chosen to head the section with the name and flag of the sovereign state. No offence intended).

The undoubted highlight of this trip was Barcelona. One of the world’s great cities, I appreciated even at 17 that the day excursion we took was not long enough to experience it properly, but it was still worthwhile. As a football mad teen, our tour of the Nou Camp, home to FC Barcelona, was a highlight. We also went to see the team play a match – a Champions League qualifier (hard to believe they ever needed to play in one) against Legia Warsaw. As far as I could tell, a large section of the support that day were tourists like ourselves. I remember the passion, which seemed at times to border on barely-contained aggression, with which the opposition fans supported their team. Barca won easily, but I hardly remember the match. Sat at the very top of the cauldron-like stadium, the action took place far below – almost too far to properly follow. I spent most of my time gazing out at the landscapes beyond, marveling at how different life is far from the little slice of suburbia in which I grew up. I loved it up there. I think I’d have sat at the top of that stand for 90 minutes even without a match being on.

Greece (July 2003) Flag_of_Greece.svg

As relatively naive teenagers, myself and my friend perhaps allowed our travel agent too much say in where we ended up. We were adamant that, although we wanted to go to Greece, we were not too keen on the idea of the hedonistic resorts like Kavos or Malia. We ended up in the tiny resort of Skala Potamia on the less travelled island of Thassos in Greek Macedonia. Despite the lack of obvious diversions for two 18-year-old boys, the first nuggets of a truly independent sense of adventure began to appear here. It was in Thassos that I first exposed myself to a different cuisine, and Greek food is just wonderful. In particular, the fresh fish, caught and served up on the same day, sticks in the mind. You could talk to the very fishermen who, earlier on, had caught the sea bream you were feasting on that evening. This was also comfortably the hottest place I’d ever been, with temperatures easily reaching the mid-30s.

The scenery was majestic and the water was pleasantly warm and a beautiful blue. This remote corner of Greece is an idyll and the perfect place to relax.

Italy (October 2008 and September 2009) Flag_of_Italy.svg

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The Trevi Fountain in Rome

Italy is incredible. The people have such a relaxed attitude to life and yet, on the ground, everything moves so fast and with such a buzz. At least in the cities. The traffic can be utterly terrifying in a metropolis like Rome. The Italian capital gave me goosebumps. It’s an enchanting place, a living breathing museum. To explore Rome is to be transplanted back almost to another world while remaining at the heart of a vibrant, modern city. The Trevi Fountain swarms with tourists day and night, and it’s quite a cramped area – pickpockets must love it. But it is simply stunning, as ornate and intricate and beautiful as anything I’ve ever seen. Some say the Colosseum disappoints, but then that seems to get said about everything. Personally, I was suitably impressed. And the food is to die for. The pasta and pizza shouldn’t come as a surprise, but there’s so much more than that. But, for me, it was the ice cream that really stood out. There seem to be as many gelateria in Rome as there are ATMs in most cities, and each one of them without fail is serving little frozen cones of heaven. My waistline is grateful I don’t live in Rome, that’s for sure.

Mount Etna in Sicily on an unseasonably murky, misty late summer's day.

Mount Etna in Sicily on an unseasonably murky, misty late summer’s day.

You’d expect Sicily in late September to be a safe bet, weather-wise. Nothing could have prepared me for the storms. We just don’t get storms like that in northern England. You’d see them out at sea while the sun still beamed down on dry land, but before long you’d be cloaked in cloud and pelted with raindrops the size of cricket bats. The mixed weather aside, exploring Sicily was every bit as magnificent an experience as Rome was. In particular, I came away with fond memories of Catania, the first overseas city I’ve ever explored entirely solo and where I found the locals to be helpful and friendly almost to a fault. Palermo, too, is a rich experience with some of the most intriguing and invigorating food markets I’ve ever seen. The hilltop town of Erice offers breathtaking views, and there’s an abundance of historical sites as well.

Vatican City (October 2008) Flag_of_the_Vatican_City.svg

Standing in St Peter's Square in front of the Basilica.

Standing in St Peter’s Square in front of the Basilica.

You didn’t think I was going to hide the world’s smallest independent state in the Rome section, did you? I find the idea of a country this small fascinating, and yet there’s nothing small about the place when you’re stood in St Peter’s Square, a tiny dot surrounded by other equally awestruck tiny dots, trying to comprehend the scale of the Basilica and of the history and influence the place has had and continues to have. Everything about the Vatican is designed to impose and impress, and it certainly does. A tour taking in the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel is an absolute must. Don’t expect to take any pictures of Michelangelo’s frescoes on the ceiling, though. They won’t let you!

India (September 2010) 125px-Flag_of_India.svg

The Taj Mahal - there are no words...

   The Taj Mahal – there are no words…

The only way to travel?

The only way to travel?

My first taste of the backpacking lifestyle was an assault on the senses in every way, and a huge step outside of my comfort zone. Nothing I’d done before in my life had the profound impact that India did. I feel truly grateful that I’ve been able to visit this remarkable country. But it was a challenge. The sticky September heat drains your energy non-stop. The hawkers and rip-off merchants invade your personal space on a daily basis. The traffic forces you to take your life into your hands. But it was worth it. The people were warm and friendly and incredibly inquisitive. The food was interesting. And the sites were like a dreamland.

We visited Rajasthan, touring the entire state, before heading to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and spending a couple of days in Delhi. Clearly, such a trip could take up a whole series of posts on its own. Alas, too much time has passed for me to do it justice. A trip to India is a life-changing experience. It takes a degree of courage, a thick skin and plenty of patience, but it’s a country that rewards the traveller prepared to maintain an open mind.

Cyprus (July 2012) Flag_of_Cyprus.svg (1)

Aphrodite's Rock is a surprisingly quiet location

Aphrodite’s Rock is a surprisingly quiet location

Having been to India, it comes as a surprise to some people that my favourite travel experience so far has been Cyprus. A jewel of the Mediterranean it may be, but it’s hardly off the beaten track. Nevertheless, I found it to be a revelation.

I’d always found the politics of the place interesting, and the experience of crossing the Green Line in Nicosia into an unrecognised but other wise fully-functioning country (the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus) was a fascinating experience. There is so much more to Cyprus than the Ayia Napa scene for those who want it. Nicosia is an absorbing city that should be given more attention in the guidebooks, as should its museum. Larnaca offers the fun of Ayia Napa minus the wild side. Limassol is clean and tidy and Paphos, while catering strongly to the package holiday market, also possesses a UNESCO World Heritage site. Those who seek solitude can still find it on the wilderness of the Akamas Peninsula (though ecological issues mean you should consider carefully whether you really ought to go there), and there are plenty of deserted beaches, particularly on the north coast. Beyond the Green Line, the Turkish side is still being discovered as it opens up to the outside world. The best way I could sum Cyprus up is to say that everybody can find their own version of it, and come to love it.

The Netherlands (February 2013) 125px-Flag_of_the_Netherlands.svg

Feeling unwell on a typical Amsterdam street.

Feeling unwell on a typical Amsterdam street.

It’s a sad state of affairs when you tell people that neither drugs nor sex were on the agenda during a visit to Amsterdam and they ask you why bothered going, because it has so much more to offer than this. Those I travelled with were not particularly enamoured with the city, but I found it charming. It’s a shame I had a horrendous cold for the entire time I was there.

I tend to feel positive about almost anywhere that feels different to what I’m used to. Amsterdam, a short hop across the North Sea from home, certainly ticks that box. For a start, it doesn’t sound like most other cities. There’s very little traffic in the city centre, so the din of internal combustion engines is replaced by the clickety-clack of trams and the metallic rattle of Amsterdam’s ubiquitous bicycles. I found that fascinating. Much like Rome, it has the feel of a different world, especially when you also consider the canals, the bridges and the unique architecture. It’s a city I’d go back to as I feel there’s more to it than I saw in my flying visit.

France (April – September 2013) Flag_of_France.svg

Place Jean Jaurès, Castres.

Place Jean Jaurès, Castres.

In 2013, I moved to France for what was meant to be a permanent position. It’s hard to believe it only lasted five months, but it was a magical time in a beautiful little town. This deserves a post to itself, so I won’t say much more here other than that it’s a privilege to have been able to call Castres my home.