Travel is a great defining constant in my life and as I reflect on the last ten years of travels, I am extremely grateful that I am able to indulge in my passion on a regular basis.
I have visited 22 new countries in the decade and revisited many more old favourites.
I found it extremely difficult to ignore my love for the likes of Norway, Iceland, Cambodia, Armenia, Georgia, Italy, Spain, Ukraine, Istanbul, New York, Tbilisi, Prague & Salzburg when choosing my seven ‘wonders’, but with all such lists there has to be a subjective choice, so here goes with my favourite travels from 2010-2019.
# One – Favourite Overland Journey, Istanbul to Yerevan
2015 saw Hamish & I undertake this epic trip via two overnight trains, tram, bus and taxis, a train under the Bosphorus from European to Asian Istanbul and a midnight 2km walk across the Turkey-Georgia border.
Wilbur In The Station Under The Bosporus, Istanbul
The journey started at the old Ataturk Airport on the European side of Istanbul. The two hour journey to Pendik on the Asian side involved a tram to the entrance of the then brand new 13.5km long Marmaray Tunnel, to change to a train to take us under the Bosphorus and then board another overland train to take us close to Pendik, from where we took a taxi to the Istanbul suburb.
It is from here that we took a high speed train the 500+km to Ankara. Trains have unfortunately not run from the iconic Haydarpasa Station on the shores of the Bosphorus since 2013, with the electrified line yet to stretch that far. It was from there that we had travelled to Syria in 2009.
Haydarpasa Station, Istanbul
We then joined the Doğu Ekspresi (Eastern Express) for a 1,200km journey to Erzurum in Turkish Kurdistan. This was my favourite leg of the journey as I got to indulge my love of the Turkish restaurant car.
A fine way to relax after yet another drama at Ankara Station had threatened to scupper the trip, as had also been the situation in 2009. You will find the stories on my blog by searching ‘Ankara‘.
From Erzurum it was a rather uncomfortable bus ride to Hopa on the Turkish Black Sea coast, before catching a taxi to the Georgian border. We then had to walk across into Georgia via two checkpoints. I was grilled long and hard on the Georgian side on account of my Syrian visa and the Arabic translation in my passport (proffered for an abortive trip to Libya).
Eventually it was agreed that I was no jihadi and I was allowed to complete my long walk, before we took another taxi to the bizarre Black Sea resort of Batumi.
After a few hours rest in a seedy hotel, another taxi took us to nearby Makhinjauri Train Station for our overnight train to Armenia.
For the first leg to Tbilisi we shared our compartment with an old Armenian lady, her middle-aged daughter and their blind cat. It did get a bit messy at one stage due to the cat’s toilet. Suffice to say that Hamish should have been more careful where he trod in his socked feet!
In Tbilisi we stopped for 30 minutes, during which time the ladies & feline found another compartment for the rest of the journey, swapping with a Danish/American couple who we were happily able to converse with.
After border formalities were completed it was time for much needed sleep before waking to the wonderful sight of Mount Ararat.
# Two – Strangest Country Visited, Turkmenistan
My 2018 trip, again with Hamish, often left me open-mouthed. From the bling architecture of the capital Ashgabat, to the wackiest museums (fancy seeing the biggest rug in the world anybody?) to the crazy ‘natural’ wonder of a burning gas crater, Turkmenistan has you gob-smacked with its audacity, peculiarity and complexity.
We arrived into Ashgabat at an airport building the shape of a falcon (having our temperature taken, retinas scanned and fingerprints photographed on arrival), stayed in a hotel that resembled a spaceship and left from a train station that looked like it belonged in an episode of Thunderbirds!
Second only to North Korea in the strange stakes, Turkmenistan is a great country to visit, leaving you both enchanted and a little perplexed. At least the latest president reversed a very strange policy by renaming the days of the week back to what they were in the past rather than names of his predecessor’s favourite family members!
In a seemingly futile task, armies of females are employed in the capital to constantly sweep the sand off the roads and back into the desert. A never ending job, but presumably dunes would eventually form if were not undertaken.
The Darvaza Gas Crater in the Karakum Desert is another great draw. It has been burning for around fifty years following a gas drilling accident. The government has long since decided against dousing the flames, even if it were able to, on account of the tourist dollars it now brings.
# Three – Best City Visited, Havana, Cuba
I said at the time of my 2017 visit that Havana was like all of the best Spanish cities rolled into one and it just pips Buenos Aires and New York as my favourite city visited since 2011.
The edgy old town of Cadiz, the oceanside promenade & Art Deco of Barcelona, the majestic buildings of Madrid, the music & dance of Seville, the cuisine of Valencia, the bars of Bilbao, the fortifications of Malaga, the multiculturalism of Granada, the architecture of Santiago de Compostela, Havana has it all and more.
Sunset from the Fort
Throw in the history of the Revolution, the fascinating Fidel & Che years with the uneasy relationship with the US, the colourful inhabitants and the classic American cars and you get the magical mix that will leave you wanting more.
# Four – Most Awesome Natural Site, Iguazu Falls, Brazil/Argentina
My visit to the falls in 2018 with Mrs Wilbur was the highlight of our trip to Argentina & Brazil.
The largest waterfall in the world is at its spectacular best on the Brazilian side at the fall known as the Devil’s Throat. We adored being soaked in the spray as we took in the thrill of the crashing white water.
The Argentine side has the widest expanse of falls with long walkways erected around them.
The falls are also home to a large variety of wildlife.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time out in the nature, a great contrast to the cities of Buenos Aires & Rio de Janeiro that bookended our trip.
# Five – Special Spirituality, Luang Prabang, Laos
A city that I visited twice in the decade, in 2010 with Hamish and again in 2015 with Mrs Wilbur. Spirituality had diminished a little second time around due to a large number of Asian tour groups, but peace & harmony was still to be found slightly off the beaten track.
Monks Collecting Alms
LP has some amazing wats (Buddhist temples) and the undoubted highlight was sitting cross-legged and bare-foot to witness the ethereal chanting of the monks.
You can watch the monks doing just that by clicking CHANT
The city is situated on two rivers, the mighty Mekong and the Nam Khan. Whether squatting on a bank or being out on the water itself, you get to see some pretty spectacular sunsets.
# Six – Favourite Country Visited, Uzbekistan
My 2018 double-header with Turkmenistan really was an epic trip and the Central Asian gem just edges out Cuba as my fave of the decade.
In Bukhara, Samarkand & Khiva, Uzbekistan has the most amazing Islamic architecture of anywhere on the ancient Silk Routes.
The Kalon Mosque, Bukhara The Registan, Samarkand
The most prolific developments took place under Timor the Great and his Timurid Dynasty. No surprise then that Timor’s mausoleum (Gur-e-Amir) in Samarkand is a spellbindingly beautiful creation.
Interior of Gur-e Amir, Samarkand
There are fine examples of palaces, madrasahs, caravanserai, mosques and mausoleums all over the country including its capital Tashkent, but it is the aforementioned golden trio that take top honours.
The Necropolis of Shah-i-Zinda, Samarkand
There are also lovely natural landscapes to be seen and in a fairly recent bonus there are now super fast trains connecting all the main cities.
The Afrosiyob Train From Bukhara to Samarkand
I might just have to do it all again!
# Seven – Most Memorable Tour, Nice to Paris via Provence, Lyon, Alsace & Champagne
I love organising a tour and very special train tours of Italy & Switzerland and northern to southern Spain could have easily won out as my best of the decade, but the car & train tour of France in 2014 just about takes the award.
We flew into Nice and picked up a Fiat 500 cabriolet to drive to Cannes to stay with a friend.
From there we drive around the riviera visiting Monte Carlo, Cape Ferat, Eze, Antibes & Grasse to stop for lazy lunches and picturesque sundowners.
A Street in Eze
We then waved goodbye to the marinas and sandy beaches, driving to Aix-en-Provence via the Verdon Gorge. We stayed for three nights in the lively university city, using it as a base to explore Provence’s delightful villages, the Roman towns of Arles & Orange and the natural beauty of the Camargue.
Abbaye de Sénanque, Provence Provençal Village Provençal Village Gourdes, Provence Orange Amphitheatre
The road trip continued up to Avignon where we stayed at lovely Villeneuve d’Avignon.
This is Cotes du Rhône region, so we could not pass up the opportunity of visiting Châteauneuf-du-Pape to sample some wonderful reds.
Palace of the Popes, Avignon
We then ditched the car and took a TGV train to Lyon, where we met some friends for lunch before taking another TGV to Strasbourg.
After a couple of days in the capital of Alsace region, we picked up another hire car to explore the Alsace Wine Route, before heading off to Epernay in the Champagne Region via Metz and the war graves of Verdun.
Strasbourg Riquewihr, Alsace French Cemetery, Verdun
From Epernay we drive one of the Champagne Routes, visited the Mercier champagne production chateau in the city and then got a train to the French capital.
Hautvilliers, Champagne Region Champagne Route
We arrived in Paris to the paralysis of a public transport strike. We did not care however, picnicking in Jardin du Luxembourg and watching France dismantle Switzerland in a 2014 World Cup group match in a lively bar in the Opera District.
All in all we felt we had seen a great deal of France in a couple of weeks, toasting our trip with champagne (naturally) on the Eurostar back to London.
So that’s a few of my travel highlights from the last decade. I wonder what the next one will bring………
What have your highlights of the decade been and what highlights are you already planning for the next one?