Nestled on the shores of the Adriatic Sea is the beautiful south-eastern European nation of Croatia, home of orange roofs, lavender fields and a proud but turbulent history dating back to the 7th century. In a nutshell, Croatia has formerly been part of the Byzantine, Austrian and Hungarian empires before uniting with neighbouring Serbia, Montenegro and Slovenia to form Yugoslavia following the First World War. This period in its history famously came to an end in the 1990s with the bloody civil war and establishment of independent sovereign nations. It’s probably fair to say that Croatia came off best in the years following the war, reinventing itself as a vibrant and appealing tourist hub. It’s certainly a destination that doesn’t disappoint, whether you’re wandering the ancient back streets of Dubrovnik or exploring the exhilarating waterfalls of the Krka National Park. It’s also fair to say that the local people don’t always come across as particularly warm or friendly, being possessed as they are of an eastern European stoicism and reserve…although if you make a friend of Croatia, you’ll find you have a friend for life.
Just starting to emerge as a destination on the South East Asia backpacker trail, but still largely unspoilt, Myanmar is one of the most colourful, intriguing and intoxicating countries I’ve ever visited.
It’s only really been accessible to mainstream tourists for the past three or four years, before which it was the subject of a repressive military regime and a number of subsequent popular uprisings, the most widely publicized of which -in 1988 – resulted in the deaths of hundreds of citizens. All that is changing though: in March 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy took their seats in government and now the country is looking to embrace a new, brighter future. The atmosphere in Myanmar is uplifting – the gentle Burmese temperament is infused with a joyful optimism and visitors are greeted with a warm, welcoming smile (albeit the cracked, red and black smile that comes from chewing too much betel nut).
Before the photographs, let’s get the technicalities out of the way: is it Myanmar or Burma? Well, both really. Both names have the same meaning, “Burma” is a local derivative of “Myanmar” and is the name by which the country was generally known until the military rulers changed it in 1989. These days, the United Kingdom still refers to it as Burma whereas the UN recognises the name Myanmar. However, I only heard the locals calling it Myanmar – the local beer even carries the brand name “Myanmar” which is good enough for me.
Myanmar is, in many ways, the closest you can come to time travel. Setting foot in places like Bagan or Inle Lake is like stepping into a bygone age…the locals are largely uninfluenced by the Western habits exported to so many Asian countries, most of them still wear the traditional colourful longyi and smear their face with thanaka paste to counter the heat. Transport is chaotic and noisy and sometimes involves an ox, Buddhism prevails, and eating is a communal affair. One of the most common pastimes of the backpacking community is the In Five Years Time game: “In 5 years time I bet it will have changed.” It’s hard to see how it won’t, after all this emerging democracy needs to boost its economy somehow and tourism is there for the taking. However, it’s sad to imagine tour buses parked up all over Bagan, resorts and golf courses around Yangon and the inevitable party boat cruise on Inle Lake. I can only feel equal measures of pleasure and gratitude that I had the privilege of exploring this wonderful destination before it joins Thailand as the archetypal holidaymakers’ paradise.
A friend of mine recently referred to Spain’s third largest city as “the Cinderella city” – beautiful, but shunted aside by the domineering Ugly Sisters of Madrid and Barcelona. It’s an apt description; Valencia is too often overlooked by tourists heading for the buzz of one of the bigger metropolises. Give this city a chance to work her charms, however, and you won’t be disappointed. It’s not often that a city ticks every single box but Valencia manages it. Beach? Check. A mix of ancient and contemporary architecture? Check. A thriving music and nightlife scene? Check. Quiet places to relax and good transport links around the city? Check. And as an added bonus, Valencia is the home of paella which means you’ll be spoilt for choice if you’re hungry after a day spent relaxing on the beach or exploring the narrow colourful streets of the Old Town.
It may be a US territory but Puerto Rico has its own separate identity and a tantalising mix of history, from the Spanish colonial houses of its capital San Juan to arts, crafts and music which could only belong to the Caribbean. Famously providing the setting for Hunter S. Thompson’s alcohol-chronicle “The Rum Diary”, Puerto Rico also offers more than its fair share of nightlife and year-round festivities. Away from the city, however, this tiny island boasts some of the most breathtaking scenery in the tropics, particularly in El Yunque rainforest which is a haven for countless species of flora and fauna.
Think “Spain” and your mind will probably conjure up images of sunshine, beaches, flamenco, bulls and sangria. Don’t be fooled however, for what you are imagining is not Spain – a country diverse and varied from north to south in terms of culture, tradition and gastronomy – but rather Andalucia, the southernmost region and home of the fiesta, the siesta, Spanish guitar music, free tapas and architecture which tells the story of the country’s Arabic past. Andalucia enjoys a pleasant climate all year round, the summer months can see temperatures top 40ºc, but it’s during the spring that the region really comes to life with the traditional Seville April Fayre, Cordoba’s Patio fiesta when many courtyards are open and guests can enjoy the beautiful spring flowers, and Semana Santa – the Easter celebrations featuring those processions with the spooky pointed hoods. So pour a glass of chilled white wine, open your windows and enjoy a trip through my adopted home….
Spain’s second city, but arguably its first in terms of culture, architecture, art and night life. Situated on the shores of the Mediterranean in Catalunia, Barcelona attracts around 7 million visitors every year who come to marvel at the colourful modernism of Antoni Gaudi’s buildings, to enjoy a glass of vino in one of the many plazas in the Gothic quarter, or simply to relax on the beach.
In recent months, Barcelona has voiced concerns about the increasing numbers of tourists; large groups are now banned from entering the old Mercado de la Boqueria near the Ramblas, and visitors must now pay 8€ to enter Parc Güell. A city this vibrant, however, is always going to be a popular choice of destination.
Finland’s first city is a relatively young capital: it’s only held the title since 1812 and with a population of just over 1 million is also one of Europe’s smallest capitals. Nevertheless, the Fins have filled Helsinki with art, music (heavy metal being a particular local favourite), food and culture. Helsinki is surprisingly multi-cultural with residents from as far afield as Senegal and Vietnam, and visitors will see evidence of former Russian influence in some of its architecture and monuments. Politics is a hot topic on many lips. Don’t be deceived however, for Fins in Helsinki also know how to relax and enjoy themselves – from the traditional sauna to the backstreet rock venues. Summer is short here and in Helsinki they fill it with festivals, concerts and outdoor events in one of the most beautiful locations in northern Europe.
Famously spanning two continents (one of only four cities in the world to do so), Istanbul combines cosmopolitan European chic with the crafts and cuisine of the Middle East. Its skyline is dominated by the spires of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque (and, unlike in Morocco, tourists are allowed to enter the mosques although shoes must be removed and women must cover their hair); you can also find many other examples of architecture from the Byzantine and Ottoman eras. After the sun sets, the evening’s entertainment is brought to you by belly dancers or whirling dervishes: the white-robed dancers who spin on the spot accompanied by traditional music. The dance of the whirling dervish, whilst impressive, is a devoutly spiritual performance and it’s considered bad form to photograph them.
A mere 13km from Europe but in a different cultural universe, everyone has their own mental picture of Morocco. Whether it’s the bustle of Marrakech, the calm blue-washed walls of Chefchaouen or dreadlocked hippies lounging on the beaches of Essaouira, there are little pockets of magic to be found everywhere. It’s also one of the most photogenic countries I’ve ever visited…