January 2017 – Costa del Sol, Spain
With 500+ days of nomadic life under our travel belts it seems a good time to reflect on the journey. And, what better way to cover ground than by answering the questions we are asked most frequently. Every day this week, we’ll tackle a new topic.
In case you missed it, we started with the adventure’s framework in a post yesterday.
And now, we’re jumping into Part II: After 18 Months of Travel, Here’s our Favorite Destinations.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Where is your favorite place so far? What about least favorites?
These are the questions we get most often, and there’s no easy answer. Each time the topic pops up, we end up incoherently babbling.
We have appreciated so many spots, for vastly different reasons. We have disliked so few, usually for the same reasons, either tourism overload or a closed, unwelcoming feel.
We both fell for tiny Volosko, a Croatian fishing village on the Adriatic. Sandwiched between the bustling port city Rijeka and resort town Opatija, Volosko is miles away in attitude; crusty, in a good way. Every local we met could be characterized as a character, also in a good way. Everyone wanted to tell and hear a story. Peeling paint holds together once grand seaside villages, small fishing boats populate the harbor, family restaurants serve up watery Croatia’s best seafood, and cats rule every narrow alley. A scenic coastal trail connects the village to life elsewhere – and for the locals, anything outside of Volosko, is a long way toward “elsewhere.”
Marrakech once again challenged us. A visit six years earlier fueled our return last spring. We hoped it would be an opportunity to dig deeper. Experiencing the simultaneously alluring and assaulting feel of the old city (medina,) we knew penetrating this heartbreakingly beautiful place would take more than a lifetime. We will never fully understand Marrakech. And, for that, we love it.
We expected to feel big love for Dubrovnik. After all, every travel magazine worthy of credentials has told us through article after article that we should. While the medieval charm can’t be denied, the crush of selfie-stick-armed, cruising daytrippers clogging the narrow alleys in search of Game of Thrones trinkets left us empty. We gave it three weeks, but every step underneath the fortress walls left us plotting escape. In talking with locals, the reason for the city’s empty feeling became clear. Residents make good money renting their homes to short-term tourists and demand is always high. Local residents have moved to surrounding areas, leaving the old town almost completely to visitors.
Would we discourage you from visiting? Not by a long shot. The history is overwhelming and important, nearby beaches are lovely, and the people are kind. We would encourage anyone going to Croatia to see more than Dubrovnik however. As with any bucket list destination, go in off-season.
Q: What has been most surprising?
Montenegro was a complete surprise. We knew so little about the country before hopping on a bus headed south from Dubrovnik. As we crossed the border and approached Kotor, the mood changed. Music was everywhere and the buzz was strong enough to penetrate the town’s dense medieval walls. Unlike many places so steeped in history, the glory days seem ahead. (While we were there, Lonely Planet named Kotor their number #1 destination.)
Live music was inescapable. Attempting to go home early, sounds of a band playing somewhere would lure us around another corner and into a later hour. We received an introduction to contemporary Balkan music one crazy night from one crazy local DJ in Old Town Bar. Then we heard a sound more familiar. The opening chords of Sweet Home Alabama rang through the streets, sending us on a quest. We found the source, a four piece Serbian band, in a smoky bar packed with locals singing along. A scene at once familiar, yet totally foreign. (We told the band we were from Alabama and had a good laugh. Two weeks later, we randomly ran into those guys at a party in another city. Wacky, travel stuff. They said, “Hey, Alabama!”)
We were overwhelmed with the sophistication of Tirana, Albania and artistic energy of Sofia, Bulgaria. Just the fact that we have spent so much time – 6 out of 18 months – in Balkan countries is a surprise. Completely unexpected.
Aside from the Balkans, Liverpool, England, was flat-out joyous. We instantly loved the city and felt connected by its feisty and engaging spirit. It’s impossible to be a stranger in that town. People engaged us in every setting, from the bus to the bar. Finding interesting art was as easy as finding a pint. And, once again, music was at the heart.
Hands down, the biggest eye-opener has to be Myanmar. I don’t think we had any real expectations, we probably assumed the country would be a bit like Thailand. We were wrong. Western tourism is so new there, which was incredibly exciting for us. Eating out was an adventure with hardly an English word or menu in sight. Street food is a way of life with local-love leaning heavy on fish stew, a speciality called mohinga.
Makeshift tea stalls are ubiquitous, one or two plastic stools along spit stained sidewalks, community cups making the rounds. “Did you just say spit stained sidewalks?” you keenly ask. Yes, one of the most exotic aspects of travel in Myanmar is that everyone, especially women, chew betel nuts, then spit the juice in bright red streams, all over the place.
Simple tasks like laundry were an adventure. Seeing a sign for “quick” service in a laundromat, we inquired and were told our clothes would be ready in 7-10 days. (We opted for hand washing in our tiny apartment, scenically located above the neighborhood printer.)
The most striking thing, besides the gorgeous yet crumbling art deco architecture of central Yangon, was the welcoming spirit. Big bright smiles greeted us in every direction. We were onboard a local train one afternoon, quite possibly the oldest train I’ve ever seen operating. Windows and doors were open spaces, carriage was standing room only, heat was oppressive. Someone timidly asked where we, clearly non-locals, were going. The entire crowd leaned in for an answer. We stammered and said we weren’t sure. In truth, we didn’t have a destination in mind, we were simply along for the ride.
Passengers discussed amongst themselves, then the one who spoke the best English related where we should go. “There’s a night market you must see,” he said. Together, the crowd debated the best route. As the train approached our stop, everyone began nodding to tell us this is where we should go. It had been a community decision and effort. We felt enveloped.
Q: What experiences stand out?
Where to begin. For Matt the first thing that comes to mind is riding a leg of the Giro d’Italia with cycling legend Francesco Moser last May.
For me, hands down, it was getting to experience Venice and Trentino with my mom and 93-year-old grandmother (her first trip ever outside of America.) That experience provided moments I will treasure for the rest of my days. I wrote about that trip in this piece for Fodor’s “Navigating Car-Free Venice with My 93-Year-Old Grandmother.”
Likewise, high on both of our lists, has been exploring places with friends, both new and old. Traveling in Morocco, Thailand, Bulgaria, and Myanmar with great travel buds. Sharing our little slice of Italian heaven in Vattaro, where we rent an apartment every summer, with over two dozen visiting friends.
Other highlights have included experiencing Puccini’s Aida in Verona’s ancient Roman Amphitheatre and feeling connected with those who came before while the arena went dark and audience lit candles. The tradition is a nod to how patrons from the arena’s beginning days, you know – back in the 1st century – might have experienced a performance. It was transcendental.
Being invited to a photography show, (commemorating a deadly 1979 earthquake,) by strangers in Budva, Montenegro and seeing the boisterous young crowd fall silent as a lady far into her eighth decade spontaneously began to sing a beloved folk song, a cappella. Men and women, young and old, openly cried as she sang. All that emotion was soon channeled on the dance floor where we joined in and somehow sang along with songs even though we didn’t know the words or speak the language. I’ll never forget that night.
Those who know us well, know we’re not particularly religious, but there have been times we’ve felt an overwhelming spirit of peace (which is what I hope religion instills, at its best) while visiting a church or holy spot. In Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most sacred temple, and again in Sofia’s Alexander Nevski Cathedral, I felt moved to tears. Two drastically different places (and belief systems,) yet both infused with a spiritual magic.
Drinking giant beers (the bartender, a master at the up sell as are many Moroccan vendors, had said all small glasses were dirty,) on the beaches of Essaouria, while watching camels slowly saunter by carrying sails for windsurfers sticks out as one of the oddest memories. As does, hitchhiking in the Dolomites and being picked up by a guy driving a four-wheeler. We’ve become experts at going with the flow!
Each Workaway and volunteer experience has been memorable. Living with a family on a farm in northern Croatia, picking vegetables by day, cooking feasts in the afternoon, and learning about each other’s culture over cold Ozujsko (the Budweiser of Croatia,) outside by a fire. I wrote about a few of our Workaway experiences for Paste magazine.
Taking a photo of a stranger in Venice that quickly led to an invitation to join the merry band of locals on their regular Saturday canal-side cafe crawl.
Staying in a $40 million dollar villa on the Amalfi coast one night, only a few nights later to sleep on a lounge chair on the porch of a hostel in Zadar. The highs and lows.
Meeting a young Bulgarian who invited us out for a drink of potent local spirit, Rajika. I agreed to one, only. Then, he asked how old we were. When we answered honestly (always a mistake when it comes to age,) his eyes grew huge and he said, “You’re older than my parents!” That’s when we ordered the second round of rajika. When he started calling me “mother,” well, the only response was…”Keep ’em coming!” We paid for it the next day, but felt proud for representing our age group so well.
Q: Do you ever experience a cultural gap?
Nearly every day, in every way. Basically, we always feel stupid. As much as we try to learn a few words or phrases in every language, we never quite get it right. I open my mouth to speak Spanish and Italian comes out. Which is totally ironic because when we’re in Italy, I seem to only recall Spanish.
At times, we feel we’re losing our English too. It’s all a jumble, at this point.
Where every sentence is an exercise in absurdity and Google Translate is as important as water, that’s the land we live.
Then, there’s cultural context. There’s so much we miss. We spend buckets of time wondering if we’ve handled situations or understood intentions correctly. Then, there’s currency conversion and time changes…at times, we’re in perpetual spin.
Even gestures can leave us head scratching.
In Bulgarian, a head nod means “no,” and a side-to-side tilt means “yes.” This confounded us for weeks. Many times we left conversations perplexed by why someone said “no,” only to realize later, we had actually gotten a “YES!”
Q: Are you ever afraid?
Aside from Matt’s reoccurring struggle with food poisoning in southeast Asia – which was fairly scary – we’ve been very luckily.
Interestingly most of our frightening experiences involve animals. We were trailed by a pack of wild dogs late one night in Tirana. That was truly terrifying. When Matt was out cycling near Bulgaria’s Rila Mountains, a wild horse (there are many in the mountains,) was startled by his presence and bolted into the road barely missing him.
There was a white-knuckle overnight bus ride in Croatia where we both thought, “Okay, this may be it.” But, other than those experiences, we have felt more safe traveling around the world than in some gun-toting areas of America.
“Fear” has actually been a fascinating theme during our travels. Fear knows no borders, and rarely has much relation to fact. When we were in Italy, people warned, “Don’t go to Croatia. It’s too dangerous.” Then in Croatia, we were told, “You can’t go to Montenegro. It’s too dangerous.” Same story when moving on to Albania, Bulgaria, Myanmar, and Morocco. Same story everywhere. People fear what they don’t know.
Everyone, it seems, is afraid of “other” everyones.
Q: Have you found anywhere you could live?
I guess we have this romantic notion that one day we’ll find a place we don’t want to leave and that’ll be it. Home, we will be.
Who knows if that will happen or not, but still we can’t help but “try on” every place we visit and wonder…
Could we live here?
The Istrian town of Rovinj, Croatia feeds us well with what we love: warm weather, beautiful beaches, nightlife, good cycling and running routes, friendly locals. We have and will spend significant time nesting in this spot.
Our feelings for the Tuscan town of Lucca, Italy were instant. We made fast friends, fell into a rhythm, and begin to feel in a small way like we belonged.
And, then of course, there’s the Trentino region of Italy, and the small village of Vattaro. Anyone who has followed our journey, knows we’ve spent a big chuck of time in this northern Italian town. The cycling is the best in the world, the food and wine are up there too, and the people are simpatico.
Bottom line on this question is there are many places we could be content for long spells – three months in Bangkok sounds heavenly too – but right now…
We’re nowhere near ready to settle down. The journey continues…
Coming up next, Part III – Relationships! Followed by Money, Packing, Life Lessons, & more!
Is there something you would like to know about nomadic life? We’re happy to answer all questions, just leave a comment here.
Thanks for sharing the journey with us. Here’s wishing you a JOYOUS and ADVENTUROUS NEW YEAR!!!
Nomadic Life: 18 Months on the Loose, Part I: The Journey’s Framework