Compared to last years travels, this year’s adventures have been decidedly one note. Rather than bouncing around the world like I did back in 2015, 2016 was about exploring Central and Eastern Europe and seeing what they had to offer. My jet-setting lifestyle took a backseat to the reality of needing money and after quite some looking for work from Vienna, I began freelancing and even started stock photography. My insane tally of countries from last year was well out of reach but I did manage to reach 15 countries throughout the year and managed to explore quite a few new places. So without further ado, while it was tough to pick just a few, here are my favourite countries of 2016.
You know when you’re curious and excited to visit a country and it totally delivers? Well, that was Romania for me this year. I’d been enamored with the romantic idea of Transylvania and the gothic legend of Dracula, so it was nice to get a real, first hand taste of both. It is also turned out that there was so much more to admire and learn about the country than just stories of vampires.
I’m easily swayed by castles and old towns and Romania has them in spades. When it comes to castles, the big 3 are Corvin, Peleș and Bran, each impressive and equally distinctive. As for old towns, the medieval citadel of Sighișoara is hard to beat but the heavily Germanic city of Sibiu comes close. Romania is also home to some fascinating urban areas, from the border city of Oradea which is seeing quite a bit of development by its riverfront, to Cluj-Napoca with its cosmopolitan feel and plethora of dining options. Of course there’s also the nation’s capital Bucharest and its curious mix of Communist and modern architecture.
One aspect of the country I failed to properly see was its bountiful nature. I did get glimpses of it in places like Brașov on the edge of the Carpathian Mountains and the rustic meadows of Maramureș, but I’d love to see more next time.
Once I had arrived in Poland, I realised what I had been missing out on after all this time in Europe. Poland is so close to places I’d been to before like Germany and Czech Republic, yet I’d never really made time for it. The idea of it never really dazzled me but after visiting I see it on a whole new light. While it may be similar to some of its neighbours, Poland definitely puts its own spin on things.
A visit to Poland requires an examination of its history. The tragic impacts of World War II and vile acts of the Holocaust are best explored in tours of Warsaw and Krakow, but yes also Auschwitz. It may have been gut-wrenching at times but experiencing these sights felt like a profoundly important thing to do in Europe. Despite the vast destruction sustained during WWII, the country does boast some gorgeous medieval old towns. Top of the list have to be the city of Krakow with spots like Wawel Castle and the charming town of Torun. Poland does also have plenty of reconstructed town squares like in Poznan, Wrocław and Gdansk. While they may not be the original buildings, they’re pretty darn picturesque.
As usual, my desire to visit unusual places lead to me to some neat spots. The eastern city of Białystok was a nice place to begin my Polish adventures, particularly checking out the lively Sunday market. On the far side of the country, the mouthful that is Szczecin showed more of a modern side. It also made a great base to explore somewhere that I’d read about before, The Crooked Forest. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting but it was still appropriately strange.
It’s nice to learn that Poland is always another option for exploring, especially with its fondness for pierogis and beer. Expect more posts on Poland to come.
Sometimes you find cool spots in the places you least suspect. And frankly, I didn’t suspect Bulgaria was going to be a favourite country of mine this year. I knew next to nothing about it other than where it was on a map. Which is a shame because it deserves more attention and not just for its sunny coastline.
Bulgaria is not particularly known for its cities but it should be. The capital Sofia is a welcome blend of various influences: Communist, Ottoman, Roman, Balkan, Modern; take your pick. The ancient city of Plovdiv balances a wealth of Roman landmarks with cool, gentrified areas like The Trap. Lastly, the fantastically named Veliko Tarnovo has an iconic fortress and a hell of a cityscape.
Don’t get me wrong, Bulgaria’s coast deserves all the attention it gets thanks to its sandy beaches and charming seaside towns. While places like Sunny Beach and Varna weren’t really my speed, they did have decent beaches. My favorite spot to relax though had to be New Nesebar where I spent close to 2 weeks unwinding. What was great was it was close to both the historic islet of Old Nesebar and some more laid back beaches. Another spot well worth mentioning is quaint Sozopol with its traditional houses and coastal views. Plus its a little less popular but expect that to change.
I could go on and on about Bulgaria, like how cheap and how diverse it is or about its fantastic natural features like the bizarre sand pyramids of Melnik. Bulgaria is not only somewhere that I could revisit to find new places, but also full of places to which I could happily return.
To me, visiting the Baltic countries was just something I had to do. It felt like I was missing out on a corner of Europe. So I decided to make my way there during summer, starting with Latvia and found it hard to top. I’d never expected that Latvia would wow me the way it did, especially since I knew very little about the county beyond the capital Riga. Turns out, there’s quite a lot to do in this intriguing northern nation.
One thing that really caught my eye was how much nature and wilderness there was in such a small country. Traversing the country involved passing through a lot of forest and past plenty of gorgeous rivers. Be it the remarkable Ventas Waterfall of Kuldiga, to the natural landmarks along the Gauja Valley to the pristine beaches of Jūrmala and Liepaja, Latvia is paradise for nature lovers. What’s great about Latvia is that the nature is often coupled with some wonderful historical landmarks. The castles of towns like Sigulda and Cesis are incredible and really add something to the already beautiful scenery. There’s also remnants from Latvia’s Communist past like the northern fortresses of Karosta that transform a beautiful beach into a thoroughly iconic sight. History and nature combined – and it’s awesome.
Putting all of the above aside, there is a reason that Riga is the most popular tourist spot. There’s just something about this city that is instantly endearing and I could have happily spent more than a week exploring the charming old town and rest of the city. Full of colourful, elaborate buildings and a welcoming, pleasant atmosphere, Riga is an easy city to settle into and even a favourite European capital of mine. Latvia’s just one country that I’d love to learn more about and do it the only way you can – by going back.
Well, those were my favourite countries that I ventured to in 2016. Have you been to any of the above? What were your favourites of the 2016?
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