While lockdown continues, while Covid-19 is still spreading, and in this time where we cannot go away anywhere, travel (if you’re not an essential worker) means walking those same streets that surround your house; those same streets you’ve probably already walked many times already. I’m taking some time month to reflect on trips of the past, and to look forward with thoughts about where I would go sometime in the future where we can travel again.
Akureyri, Iceland: Do you ever visit a place for only a short time, but have that place leave a strong and positive impression in your mind? That you always wish you had more time there, or that you could go back there? That’s how I feel about Akureyri.
We visited Iceland for the first time in 2006 – a five person expedition of me, Husband (then-Boyfriend), my sister and two of my sister’s friends. Iceland was breathtakingly expensive and we had only five days to drive around the country in our hire car. We arrived in Akureyri in the late afternoon and checked into the youth hostel. I remember the hostel being one of those places where someone had actually put some thought into what makes a good hostel, little touches that made our stay so much easier.
The town was also lovely, with its own series of attractions, but alas – our driving schedule meant we were up and ready to leave at 9am to get to nearby Myvatn and none of the town’s attractions opened until 10am. It’s somewhere I always thought I would like to go back to and spend a few days, assuming I had an unlimited budget of course. But there’s plenty to do there to fill even one day.
And if you ever do get to visit, think about staying in the youth hostel. It’s really good!
Ashgabat, Turkmenistan: Welcome to a city of the future! Welcome to a city that gleams with white marble!
Turkmenistan’s wealth comes from its vast reserves of natural gas, and that wealth is reflected in the shininess and new construction that typifies the city centre. On our visit there in 2014, our two-year-old guidebook was already out of date as old buildings had been torn down and new ones were being constructed in their place. Most of these grand government buildings you can’t photograph either – there are guards outside who shout at you if they see you with a camera, leading the visitor to feel they have time travelled back to the Soviet era.
A visit to this city is like walking into the set of a dystopian future film. It’s very modern but also pulls strongly on Turkmen traditions and history. The guidebook warned us that our hotel room was likely to be bugged, and that we shouldn’t discuss anything political with local people. So the wide avenues and large public squares do not reflect the close and closed nature of the country, which is effectively a dictatorship.
Ashgabat is hard to get to – you need visa in advance, and to get a visa you need an invitation letter. And even if you have a visa, I remember on arrival there was some confusion that we had to go to another window and pay some money to have our visa verified before we could proceed through customs. A strange city, not likely to be high on many people’s Places to Visit list, but somewhere you might pass through if you take a Silk Route overland tour. (We travelled Ashgabat to Tashkent with Dragoman.)
Albania: Yes, Albania. Maybe you draw a blank when thinking about Albania – you can’t even imagine what it’s like. Maybe the country brings up some negative associations to you and you think you’d have to be crazy to go there. But the country is changing. And it has a wonderful range of attractions: beaches, lakes, history, good food. Yes – Albania has all these things. We hadn’t thought much about it until we were considering a larger multi-country tour through the Western Balkans countries and – perhaps like many readers – drew a blank on what there is to see in Albania. I found a blog outlining X number of reasons to visit the country and Husband and I read it and both thought – hmm, yes, Albania… why not? If you’re still not convinced, how many reasons to you want to visit? 15? 37? 75?