28 Dec 2017 travel in review: Alpine peaks and city streets
With the new year just around the corner, I’m wrapping up 2017 with a real-life review of where I’ve been and what I’ve actually been up to. Here’s my year in travel and mini-adventures.
2017 is the first full year that I’ve documented my travels on this blog. It’s been a year packed with unexpected destinations and time well-spent returning to some old faithfuls, places that had already stolen a piece of my heart.
I don’t start the year with a travel plan. So, this year’s explorations have been a happy combination of coincidence, last-minute planning, out of the blue ideas and the advice of friends. And, it’s been wonderful and unexpected in equal measures. I’ve clocked up six countries, two of which were completely new to me (Estonia and Finland). But at the end of the day though, it’s never about clocking up mileage or ticking places off lists, it’s just about having fun.
As the blog isn’t always chronological (life, and writer’s block, gets in the way of things at times), I wanted to wrap up what I’ve actually been up to this year and share my favourite moments with you.
Starting with some snow: A return to the Milky Way
January 2017, Claviere (Italy)
2017 started in my favourite way. In late January I headed out to Italy with some of my very best friends I love to ski with. I say skiing – drinking enthusiastic quantities of hot chocolate and wine, and admiring beautiful mountains have been a prominent feature of our adventures to date.
We were making a return visit to the magical Milky Way (or Via Lattea as the Italians call it). In early 2016 we’d had a fantastic week in Sauze d’Oulx, at the southern end of this huge ski area. But we were eager to explore more, so this time we based ourselves close to the French border in the little Italian village of Claviere. This meant we had the French resort of Montgenevre and Italian resorts of Claviere and Sansicario on our doorstep.
It was a week of unbelievably good snow conditions, fantastic company and excessive cheese and Amaretto consumption. In short, heaven.
Montgenevre, has some of the most diverse pistes packed into one ski area I’ve ever found. No day on the slopes here is the same, in spite of there being so many crowd-pleasers you just want to dash down time and time again. There’s a real range of runs – from wide open pistes that invite you to have a lot of fun, to pretty tree-lined trails that weave between the resorts making exploring all the more enjoyable. My favourites? The handful of runs down from Col des Gondrans high above Montgenevre are absolute piste perfection. And dare I say it, whilst it might be a somewhat intimidating black, Les Rhodos was a dream to speed down. Claviere also has a surprisingly enjoyable range of pistes that were delightfully quiet, so we often had the mountain to ourselves.
The Milky Way caters brilliantly for skiers of all abilities. I’m fairly sure I would have had just as much fun here as a beginner. You’ve also got a relatively short transfer time from Turin airport, and both Sauze d’Oulx and Claviere are surprisingly charming resorts (I’ve a particular soft-spot for the old town of Sauze with it’s stone-walled chalets and ancient wooden doors).
There’s a lot to recommend here, and I’ve no doubt I’ll be back.
Heading up the mountain on a skidoo in the dark to feast on Raclette and Italian wine in a remote snow-covered chalet. You’ll never know how much cheese you can consume in one sitting until you’ve tried it.
The heart of the Emerald Isle: A swift city break
February 2017, Dublin (Ireland)
It felt like I’d been home only a minute or two before I was re-packing my bags and heading off to the airport again.
Next destination: Dublin, and the best half term deal to be found.
I’d visited Ireland once before. A good friend of mine was living and working about an hour outside of the capital, and I had a wonderful time discovering just how spectacularly beautiful rural Ireland is with her company. But since then, I’ve been curious to see if the capital would live up to my (high) expectations on a return visit.
The good news? It did.
Ben and I had a whirlwind three days trying to pack in as much as we could, ignoring the slightly glum February weather. I’d not done an awful lot of research in advance (does anyone else struggle to plan ahead for places closer to home?) but stumbling across fantastic find after fantastic find seemed remarkably easy.
If I had to summarise the Irish capital in three words, I’d describe it as vibrant, colourful and exceedingly tasty (I’m cheating of course, but it’s my rules on the blog. And besides, there’s no better way to sum up the food in this city). It’s also just the right size for a long weekend.
I would have loved to stay longer and stray further afield, but time didn’t allow. Besides, it’s always good to leave a city knowing there’s more adventures to be had. And I need to find the perfect hotel next time. Or Airbnb? Any recommendations?
The Comedy Crunch, the best stand-up you can stumble across in a pub. And the divine Pitt Bros BBQ. If you love barbecued food, head straight to Dublin just to gorge in this restaurant.
On the road again: Alpine capers in France
August 2017, Troyes and Annecy (France)
Spring and Easter rushed past in a whirlwind of everyday life, and it wasn’t until late May that we started planning our next trip. I had two weeks of leave at the start of August and it wasn’t city slicking that I was craving. I wanted to feel the sun on my back, and find some time to wind down.
One thing led to another, and before I knew it we’d booked a crossing to France and made plans in the Alps.
Last summer we spent a week pottering around (correction: serious hiking!) in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland. It fulfilled a dream I’d had for many years, but it wasn’t quite the laid-back, wanderlust experience I’d hoped for. It turns out that driving a van on the opposite side of the road is quite tricky, mountain weather in August can be more than questionable and the Swiss Alps are packed in mid-summer. Admittedly none of these things should have surprised me, but I’d had my rose-tinted glasses on when I’d made my plans.
This year, I wanted a week or two without any worries. More specifically, without having to park a van at any point.
So I persuaded Ben that heading down to the alpine paradise of Lake Annecy would be the crowd-pleaser we needed.
Now me and Annecy have a little history. I’ve been visiting this breathtaking part of the French Alps since was a child, so I’ve already got a veritable family library of amusing anecdotes, tall tales and happy memories associated with this place.
So, as travel blogger, you might ask why I didn’t want to spend two weeks exploring somewhere entirely new?
But hear me out. If you truly fall in love with somewhere, return!
I realised on this trip that you can never finish exploring somewhere. Shake things up a little and you’ll continue to find delights. You just need to find a new perspective on a place: view it through someone else’s eyes, visit at a new time of year, travel a different way. This time I had a fresh pair of eyes with me (thanks Ben!) and a new mode of transport: we’d brought our road bikes with us so we could spend as much time as possible on two wheels rather than four.
We also broke the journey on the way down with an overnight stop in the pretty city of Troyes. Neither of us had been here before, but we’d both happily visit again – you should go there for the best burger I’ve ever had the pleasure of snaffling on the continent.
The sun shone on us (quite literally) and the time flew by as we spent our days hiking up mountains, cycling down them, basking in the sun, sloshing in the lake and drinking endless cold beers. We didn’t have a schedule, and we didn’t need one. We took each day as it came, and planned our adventures over breakfast on the terrace.
Hiking to the top of Mont Veyrier for amazing panoramic views over the lake and city of Annecy. Reaching the top of Col de Forclaz (the highest I’ve ever ridden) on my little bike in spite of every muscle in my body telling me it wasn’t a good plan. Oh, and every single minute spent soaking up the sun next to the lapping waters of the lake.
Welsh wonders: Running the west coast
August 2017, Tywyn (Wales)
The end of August took us to Wales for a long weekend. More precisely, the town of Tywyn and the epic Race The Train trail run.
This slightly ambitious sounding race is a trail runner’s dream. It’s a 14 mile-ish course along one of west Wales’s most picturesque valleys, with a steam train to beat. The course follows the route of the Tallylyn steam railway and features streams, waterfalls and knee deep mud to test your metal. It’s hard work, but bloody brilliant and extremely well organised and supported to boot.
We made a weekend of it by booking a glamping pod in a nearby village, which turned out to be an excellent choice given the weather. Don’t let my pictures fool you – whilst beautiful, Wales in August can be cold and exceptionally wet at times. And to make the drive worth our while, we sandwiched our race day with two days of walking. Our first was in the Elan Valley, and second just south of Builth Wells. Whilst these weren’t new spots for me, the beauty of this little country and its ever changing weather meant that both felt delightfully new.
As a happy aside, the town of Tywyn also turned out to be a bit of a gem. It might not be as photogenic or packed with attractions as some of its neighbours, but it has a warmth and charm that could definitely lure me back. The people of Tywyn also know good food when they see it. We were thrilled with the hearty grub at Proper Gander and the Salt Marsh cafe in town.
Catching the perfect light across the Garreg Ddu dam in the Elan Valley. Scrumptious homemade pizza at the Salt Marsh Cafe in Tywin.
Winter is coming: Let’s make a Baltic getaway
October 2017, Tallinn (Estonia) and Helsinki (Finland)
We headed off for our last escape of the year at the end of October. It’s one of my favourite times of year to get away as there’s fewer crowds and more excuses to frequent cafes.
I’m not sure how we ended up choosing Tallinn in the end. But we were both mighty pleased that we did. For a pocket-sized capital, Tallinn punches well above its weight. It’s an architectural delight and the Estonian people are warm and welcoming, even when the weather isn’t.
After two days exploring the old town and charming districts of Kalamaja and Rotermanni, we were ready for something a little different. So we hopped on the ferry for a day out in Helsinki. The Finnish capital is just over an hour and half away, and delightfully different. It’s a bit of a stretch to travel there and back in day, but perfectly doable if you’re happy to get up early and return later in the evening. We had a bumper day taking in as many sights as possible and trying to get a feel for this eclectic Nordic city.
But the icing on the cake of this trip was yet to come. As we stepped off the boat on our return, big flakes of snow started to fall. Before we knew it, we were in a winter wonderland.
It was pretty late, so after a bit of a snow dance through the old town and snapping a few photos we headed back to our hostel for the night. We’d had a bit of fun, but thought nothing of it – assuming it would thaw by the morning. But we couldn’t have been more wrong! Overnight, a couple of inches of snow fell, and when we woke just before dawn we knew we had to head out straightaway. And so began a day of getting to know an entirely new city – Tallinn in the snow.
To say it was magical would be an understatement. We hadn’t expected the snow, and neither had the locals. Heading out first thing, we were the first to make footprints on the cobbled street. It was many hours later that enthusiastic shopkeepers and residents started to sweep the streets and doorsteps of the city. We’d had the place to ourselves, and it made our trip.
I’d never have thought to visit a city so far north in mid-winter, so it was a joy to explore the snowy cityscape without the shorter days and frozen temperatures that arrive later in the year. It was also a fantastic lesson in how much a place can change depending on the season. Exploring Tallinn in the autumn and winter (or so it felt) reminded me that revisiting a place in a different season can be just as exciting as discovering a new one.
Exploring the old town of Tallinn. Enjoying the spectacular sunsets from the viewpoints around Toompea Hill.
So what does 2018 have in store?
I’m not renowned for making plans a long time in advance. Whilst I’d like to think that means I’m the slightly spontaneous type, I’m mostly the slightly disorganised type. But, for once, early 2018 is mapped out pretty well, and I’m pretty darned excited.
I’m disappearing off for snow adventures in just a few weeks time (that’s right, the ski boots are coming out of storage!). I’ll be visiting one of the biggest, and reputedly best, French ski resorts for the first time. There are also weekend getaways a little closer to home planned, as I enthusiastically try to get to know my own country better. I’m looking forward to exploring the Brecon Beacons and the city of Cheltenham, both with unexpected twists.
Not to mention, my mind is whirring with a hundred and one ideas for other escapes and opportunities to discover new places.
Thanks for all your support and encouragement on the blog this year. It’s been an absolute pleasure sharing my stories with you and hearing your comments. I plan to bring you even more travel inspiration, advice and cinnamon bun reviews in the new year.
May 2018 be packed with wonderful adventures, big or small, wherever you might might be.