15 Countries, 15 Pictures, 15 Stories… in 4 Months!
I recently got back home from a trip across Europe and Africa – Journalist on the Run and I visited 15 countries over 4 months!
My trip was the topic of a lot of conversations among my family and friends during the holidays. I had a great time sharing some of the highlights, and thought that it would be fun to post a “sparknote summary” of each country we visited, along with my favorite Instagram picture! Hopefully this will give you a little taste of what it was like to knock 15 countries off your list!
I’ve still got a lot of photos from the trip to post, so if you don’t follow me now – check out @ianellis5 on IG!
I’ve been to Ireland before, but that six years ago and I just saw was the touristy parts of Dublin and Galway. This time around, I drank a few Guinness’s in Dublin and hopped on a bus south to County Cork! Janet’s family has a gorgeous farm where I stayed – they took me in and treated me like family. I loved the morning tea, home-made meals, and competitive family game of croquet!
The highlight of my time in Southern Ireland was a trip to Gougane Barra – a beautiful, peaceful little settlement that is home to the picturesque church of St. Finbarr. While I really enjoyed my time there, we were both anxious to get the trip started!
Paris holds a special place in my heart. It’s one of my favorite cities and we had a great time hanging out with some of Janet’s friends who lived there. We got to experience the city like locals… we spent a night sitting next to the River Seine and drank wine while salsa music played, we had a picnic and watched the sunset right outside the Louvre, and ate the best bread and cheese in town!
But I also enjoyed our trip to Annecy, a fairytale town about five hours south of Paris. It’s a colorful little village well known for it’s desserts and gelato. It’s located right next Lake Annecy, a vast and stunning lake with crystal-clear blue water, surrounded by castles and charming, quaint houses!
We spent ten days here exploring the entire country with an unlimited train, boat, and bus pass. We covered about 450 miles and made stops in five different cities. Words can’t describe how insanely beautiful Switzerland is, and we loved staring out the windows of the train watching all the different scenery fly by.
We explored the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, took a chocolate making class in Interlaken, toured vineyards in Lugano, ate at the oldest fondue restaurant in the country (open since 1870!), cruised down the River Rhine, spent a day touring Lake Geneva on a steamboat (at it’s deepest point, the Eiffel tower would be completely submerged!), visited Europe’s largest subterranean waterfall, went on some breathtaking hikes, and ate a 14Euro big mac! Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to re-trace Jason Bourne’s footsteps in Zurich.
Unfortunately we only had a weekend in Venice because I could stay here for months. It’s one of those places that you have to experience once in your life – there’s really no comparison.
The best thing you can do here is just get lost – we found some great hole-in-the-wall restaurants, ate some of the best pizza I’ve ever had, drank Aperol Spritz’ and took in some some unbelievable sunsets. Peak tourism season was over but it was still busy because of the Venice Film Festival and the historical Regatta (a big parade and boat race where everyone dresses up in traditional Venetian garb).
I never imagined I’d visit Slovenia, let alone spend a week there camping at a luxury resort (“glamping!”). We stayed at Big Berry, a “dynamic accommodation concept that perfectly combines the need to live in harmony with nature and the comfort of the modern home.” It was quite the experience, and after a month on the road, it was nice to sleep in a “real” bed! And there was a hot tub on our front porch…
We had a basket waiting on our porch every morning, filled with a locally produced breakfast spread (that I claim is the best in Europe!). We visited Lake Bled and Ljubljana; we went hiking, kayaking, and stand-up paddle boarding; enjoyed home-made wine and Rakia (which is dangerous… think ~100 proof alcohol); and swam across the Kupa River (located right outside our home) to Croatia!
We rented a car and drove along the coast from Zagreb to Dubrovnik, with a bunch of stops in between. This is the right way to do scenic Croatia. But fair warning – Croatia has become a very popular tourist location, so it can be a little overwhelming (especially in Dubrovnik) and expensive. As a huge Game of Thrones fan, it was incredible to be able to stand in the exact location of where some of the show’s biggest scenes were filmed (like the purple wedding and walk of shame!). And I sat on the Iron Throne (again)!
The seafood everywhere is incredible, I had the best black risotto of my life. We watched the sunset in Zadar (which Charles Dickens called the best in the world), raced Dune Buggy’s above Dubrovnik’s Old Town, went on a bar crawl with a bunch of crazy Australians in Zagreb (…and I tried Vegemite!), and spent a day in stunning Plitvice Lakes National Park. I did some cliff jumping, went to an underground warehouse rave, almost stole a boat, almost got a tattoo, and definitely slept in a camper van.
Bosnia & Herzegovina
I had a love/hate relationship with B&H. I really loved Sarajevo and Mostar, the other places not as much. Sarajevo is full of history, and it was humbling to see bullet holes still covering many of the buildings. Mostar is home to one of the country’s most recognizable landmarks, the Old Bridge, where Red Bull holds it Cliff Diving World Series.
And we ran into some unexpected thrills along the way, and by unexpected I mean a little dangerous. In hindsight I like to think they were more thrilling than dangerous. Like mine (underground explosive) fields everywhere you look. And the roads were very narrow (what we would consider to be one-way in the US), but cars drove both ways on them. This made for some interesting bike tours and (terrifying) driving along curvy, precipitous mountains. We got to explore an intricate underground cave and an abandoned military fortress with M-9 machine gun turrets, and climb an old building (now covered in graffiti) where enemy snipers would hide.
We totally cheated here. While we were in Trebinje (southern Bosnia) we took our rental car for a half day trip to Montenegro. And by half day trip I mean that we went there for dinner. It was about an hour-long drive and we barely made it through – when we were at the border, we didn’t have the correct currency, so we had to haggle and beg until they eventually took our Bosnian dough. Same issue when we tried to leave…no, we don’t learn.
Cross another country off the list.
Serbia was a whole lot of fun… maybe a little too much fun. One of Janet’s friends flew in to Belgrade to join us for a couple weeks, and we all went into full-on “vacation” mode. We knocked off the big touristy stops right away, which left plenty of time to enjoy the more memorable part of Belgrade… the nightlife, which it is very well known for. We met up with some local friends of Janet’s (if you haven’t figured this out yet, she has them everywhere…) and they took us to some really fun, unique bars and clubs. More Australians here (they really are everywhere and they’re always nuts). Its safe to say, we didn’t get much sleep in Belgrade. And while we also visited the nearby cities of Novi Sad and Nis, it wasn’t nearly as exciting.
I was a little nervous initially about going here because the US State Department had issued some warnings about certain parts of the country. Those fears were alleviated quickly once I learned that a lot of Kosovo loves Americans (you can Google why). So I didn’t even have to wear my I ❤️ Canada hat here. In the capital, Pristina, there is a huge statue of Bill Clinton and a major street named after him! We made some friends and had a lot of fun here as well – there were a couple big World Cup qualifying matches between local teams (including nearby Albania, who many were cheering for), so we bought some football (soccer?) apparel and cheered/celebrated along with the crowds! Fun fact… Pristina is also home to what many consider to be the ugliest building in Europe:
We spent most of our time in the capital city, Skopje, which I really liked. Although it’s one of the poorest countries in Europe, they have invested heavily in infrastructure and have worked towards developing a market based economy. And it’s made a big difference IMO. Skopje is a very modern, clean city, with new buildings, bridges, fountains, and statues recently built to give the city a more monumental/historic aspect. But these projects have been criticized due to the high cost.
Someone told us a pretty funny story – after all the new statues were built (that everyone complained about), another one popped up a few months later. The public was exacerbated, thinking “that stupid government, not another one…” and incredulously started asking why the hell they needed more statues! Turns out the government was just as perplexed because they hadn’t built it. Someone pranked the city and mocked the government by paying for a brand new, random statute to be installed! What a place.
Who’s heard of Albania? I feel like I knew of the name but absolutely nothing else. However, that might soon change because I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a huge tourist destination within the next decade. It has the same gorgeous coastlines and scenery as neighboring Croatia, but at a much cheaper cost and with a fraction of the tourists!
We hitchhiked our way around most of the country, which was a first for me. It ended up being quite the adventure and we were picked up in everything from a minivan to a cement truck (there was a truck selling seafood door to door but they unfortunately wouldn’t pick us up). Some people drove us for over an hour, others less than 5 minutes. There was a language barrier, so we would literally point and yell when we needed to get out. We lucked out though and didn’t get picked up by anyone from a Criminal Minds show. You should try it sometime!
It’s also where we luckily ran into (and became friends with) Allison from Eternal Arrival!
Greece is a magical place and we got to experience it for three long weeks. Because it was the low season, we skipped Santorini and Mykonos and traded them for “less” traveled to islands (that are still quite popular): Corfu and Crete. The beaches here are amazing no matter what island you’re on and we caught some amazing sunsets. Athens is the only city I’ve ever visited where you could be walking next to a Zara and a magnificent, ancient monument/building at the same time, on the same street. Oh, and it was the first place we got to eat Chinese food in over two months (it tasted so good!).
There is just so much to do in Greece – I wish I could have stayed for months. On Corfu there were some Instagram-perfect viewpoints, and I climbed up a terrifyingly large rock to get some shots with the drone. Crete had some stunning beaches, like Elafonisi with its distinct pink sand, and it will forever be ingrained in my mind as where I watched the US election unfold.
The Great Pyramid of Giza: the last remaining wonder of the ancient world, and something that everyone should see in their lifetime! This is really all the reason you need to visit.
Cairo is a crazy city – and it’s really hit or miss: some people love it, some people don’t. It’s loud, chaotic, and messy – but aren’t most great cities? Cars race around the street, abandoning any rules of the road, and pedestrians cross with equal disregard, but somehow, it all works (and is kind of fun once you get used to it… like a real life game of Frogger). Visitors stick out like a sore thumb, and while there are a lot of people that will try to sell you stuff, there are just as many that will genuinely approach you with a, “welcome to Egypt!” or help with directions. We toured the legendary Egyptian museum and saw the Gold Mask of King Tut! It was the first time I’ ever seen a camel in person, but they looked rather dirty so I stayed away 😛
I crossed off a another bucket list item here (in addition to seeing the pyramids and sphinx – a childhood dream): taking a ride on a hot air balloon! We woke up at 4am to ascend into the sky and watch the sunrise over the ancient city of Luxor. It’s an experience that I will never forget!
There was no better way to end the trip IMO. Cape Town IS the most incredible place I’ve ever been. It’s hard to describe, but everything about it took my breath away. The people, culture, scenery, food, wine, etc. Everything! Out of the countries that we visited, I would recommend South Africa above all others.
And we got to do some pretty cool stuff here: a helicopter ride over Cape Town, diving in a cage with great white sharks, and bungee jumping off the highest commercial bridge bungee jump in the world! More bucket list checking. I went surfing for the first time (not at the same time as the shark cage dive). We went sand boarding. Toured a bunch of great vineyards (they have some incredible wine!). Climbed Table Mountain and Signal Hill. Visited the Cape of Good Hope (the most south western point on the African continent). Spent two weeks road tripping along the dazzling Garden Route. Hung out with penguins (!) on Boulders beach. And ate some really spectacular food (the foodie scene here is taking off!).
Cant wait to go back!
Do you have any questions about my trip? Let me know what you think!