This will sound like such a cliche but it really does feel like just a couple of months ago that I was writing this same ‘travel round-up’ post for 2017! Back then, I’d spent a few months teaching English in Poland before embarking on a backpacking trip from Poland to the Balkans and returning back to Poland for a few weeks in the run up to Christmas to enjoy the markets, drink Soplica and practice my terrible Polish on unsuspecting shopkeepers and bartenders.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the previous paragraph refers to this past year. I did indeed spend 2018 teaching English in Poland, travelling through the Balkans and returning to Poland for (you’ve guessed it) markets and vodka. However, while my descriptions may sound similar on paper, there is a huge difference between my 2018 and my 2017, and it’s something that I’m a bit less hesitant to address than I was this time last year.
You see, 2017 wasn’t the greatest. I had some phenomenal travel experiences, but I had some pretty big family problems going on, and towards the second half of the year, I began suffering from quite bad anxiety and panic attacks, meaning that a lot of my memories from that time are tainted. When I think about my 25th birthday, all I can remember is standing in a backstreet crying because I wasn’t able to handle sitting in a restaurant. When I think back to my time in Serbia, I only remember trying to hide the fact that I was struggling from everyone, but eventually crumbling and booking an expensive flight home because all I wanted was my mum.
I touched on these things in my travel round-up of 2017, but in a way so vague that if you blinked, you would have missed it. I was torn between wanting to be transparent but also not wanting to bare my soul in its entirety to the internet when the issues were still ongoing. I’m bringing this all up now, not for sympathy, but to highlight just how incredible the last 12 months have been for me. 2018 was my third year of travel (isn’t that amazing?) and it was the best one yet.
I was lucky enough to spend over 8 months on the road this year. Most of that time was spent in Poland (shocker), with 3 months dedicated to exploring the Balkans (Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo to be precise). It would be impossible (and dull) to try and construct a coherent timeline of the past 12 months as I’ve spent an absurd amount of time toing and froing between the same few places, and so instead I’m simply going to list some experiences that made 2018 the best year of travel yet.
If, for some reason, you’re still reading my disjointed rambles, then thank you and congratulations because I’m finally going to start talking about my favourite travel memories of 2018!
My Favourite Travel Experiences of 2018
Teaching English in Poland
The thing that has undoubtedly made the biggest impact on me this year has been my experiences teaching English to business professionals in Poland. Usually, when people hear the word ‘teaching,’ they envisage a classroom full of bored students with an equally bored teacher. That’s certainly how I imagined teaching would be. However, the kind of teaching that I had the privilege of doing couldn’t be further from that. Time after time I was transported to beautiful hotels in remote areas of Poland where some 20 native English speakers would spend a week helping Polish participants improve their English. This has sometimes taken the form of learning idioms, explaining phrasal verbs and helping people to create presentations in English, but more often than not, our ‘teaching’ has just consisted of talking to people and correcting their grammar when necessary.
The impact that these programmes have had on me is unbelievable. More than once I’ve been reduced to tears when a participant has grown in ability and confidence in just a few short days, and I can’t even count the number of inspiring people that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. I’ve met with movie directors, heart surgeons, CEOs, athletes, psychologists, actors and architects. I’ve met a woman who created an initiative to help homeless people, a headmaster who organised a nationwide concert for children with special needs and so many other people whose lives have left me humbled and awestruck.
Not only have I had the pleasure of meeting such wonderful people, but I also have the honour of being able to call some of them my friends. Of course, I haven’t stayed in touch with every single person I’ve met while teaching English (there are probably well over 200 of them!), but I’ve definitely made some friends for life who I know I’ll be seeing much more of in years to come.
Drinking While Teaching English
Forget 20 year old Australian backpackers, the people who can party harder than anyone else are 40-something year old Polish men. Without exception, on every single teaching programme that I attended, there would always, without fail be one or two older Polish guys that would take the lead and buy countless bottles of vodka which they would then proceed to force everyone to drink every single night. It was Radek in Lipowy Most, it was Grzegorz and Dariusz in Bachledowka, it was Marek in Kuklowka…the list goes on.
I’ve stayed at many a party hostel in my time (yes, Retox, yes, Greg and Tom’s), but never have I encountered groups of people who can go as hard as middle-class Polish people who want to learn English. These guys will stay up drinking until 4:30am, wake up at 7 to go for a run and then spend 12 hours learning English before doing the whole thing again. I’m not kidding.
Albania really does have a bit of everything, from huge cosmopolitan cities, to white sand beaches, to formidable mountains. However, when I think back to my time in Albania, my favourite memories are not so much about any of those things as they are about the travel itself. You see, getting from A to B in Albania is not quite the same as it is in other parts of the world. In every other country that I’ve travelled to, (even Cambodia!), travel had been relatively simple. You book a bus ticket online, turn up to the bus station and get on a bus.
Not in Albania.
If you want to travel anywhere in Albania, you get directed to a random spot on the side of the road and told to wait until something resembling a bus arrives. You get on, tell the driver where you want to go and just kind of hope for the best. Probably, you’ll make a few stops en route as the driver picks up parcels, buys onions from an old woman on the side of the road (true story) and randomly sees someone he recognises so pulls over for a catch up and a cigarette. At first, it’s a little daunting but eventually you begin to see that although nothing SHOULD work, it just kind of…does.
Travel in Albania is so laid back and stress-free that by the time I left, I was completely sold on the Albanian way of travel. Timetables, bus stations, online reservation systems? Pft. Who needs em?
This May, I visited Lviv in western Ukraine for a week with my buddy Nadia, and boy oh boy was it a hell of a ride! From speakeasy jazz bars, to underground Ukrainian nationalist bars, BDSM bars, beer museums, torture-themed restaurants and beers named after Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, Lviv sure knows how to entertain! Nadia and I drank coffee that was on fire, bought toilet paper with Putin’s face on it, and handled AK-47s. Name me one other city in which you can do all of those things in one day. I dare you.
Wine Tasting in Albania
I’d never been wine tasting before this summer, but after going about 3 times in a 2 week period recently, it’s safe to say that I definitely have now! While staying in the beautiful UNESCO town of Berat in Albania, my friends and I were introduced to the Fiska family who own their own winery in the village of Roshnik. For just 7 euros, you can have a tour of the winery before trying all of the different kinds of wine and raki (brandy) that they produce and dancing to traditional Albanian music under the stars. I’ve written about the Fiska family winery in another post (which you can read here), so for now let it just be said that I had some wonderful nights in Roshnik and wine tasting at Kantina Alpeta was definitely one of my travel highlights of 2018.
Going Sailing in Poland’s Lake District
So because my life is just the best, I found myself invited onto a yacht by some students that I’d met while teaching English. Marek, Sasza and Tomek invited myself and two of my friends, Paul and Nadia, on a 4-day boat trip in Masuria, the ‘Land of a Thousand Lakes,’ and the six of us had a fantastic time eating, drinking and exploring Masuria by boat.
Sailing is something I’d never tried before, so not only was it fascinating to learn the ins and outs of how to sail, but it was also a truly special time with a wonderful group of people. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever laughed as much in my life as I did on that boat trip!
Kosovo Road Trip
As someone who is really interested in the history of the Balkan region, I was definitely looking forward to visiting Kosovo/a. I was eager to find out everything I could about the world’s second youngest country, and there were definitely more than a few things that I wanted to check out while I was there. However, my time in Kosovo was made better than I could ever have imagined, thanks to two local Albanian boys, Andi and Venet. Andi and Venet own the best restaurant in Pristina (and maybe all of Kosovo!). This is a restaurant that is so good that they have had to turn the Albanian president away (twice!) because they were so full!
For some unknown reason, the boys decided to come and chat to my friend Sarah and I as we were finishing our meal. This conversation led to many more nights in the boys’ restaurant (always on the house), and even an overnight road trip to the boys’ hometown of Gjakova and across the border into the Albanian mountains.
Not only was their hospitality unparalleled, but their company was even better and I look forward to welcoming them both into my home next year (I haven’t forgotten boys!).
Living in Kotor, Montenegro
Kotor was my first stop on my 2018 Balkan trip and I fell in love with it immediately. The cobbled streets, cats, towering mountains and the slow pace of life had me head over heels, and so I ended up volunteering at a hostel in order to stick around for a bit longer. I spent about 2 months in total in Kotor and I absolutely loved it. The guests that passed through the hostel became dear friends of mine, and I was able to make some incredible memories with them, from the dreaded ‘rakija day,’ to an absolutely smashing Halloween party and countless boat trips. I was also able to explore the nearby towns of Budva and Perast, as well as getting to know Kotor’s old town like the back of my hand.
Greg and Tom’s Party Hostel, Krakow
It’s no secret that Greg and Tom’s Party Hostel in Krakow, Poland, is my favourite hostel of all time. I visited twice in 2017 and another 5 or 6 times in the first half of 2018 before finally returning in December 2018 to work for them as a volunteer. As I was returning to Manchester for Christmas, I was only able to stay for 3 weeks (but will 100% be back in 2019 so it’s no biggie) but I had the time of my life. The staff at Greg and Tom’s are wonderful and it was lovely to see some familiar faces, as well as getting to make new friends too.
Not only that, but Krakow is an incredible city and one that I’d only ever explored as a tourist, so it was nice to take things a little slower there and take time to discover the best places to have brunch, buy English language books etc. It was also wonderful to be back in Poland in December. Poland is a magical place to travel to during the festive season and the Christmas markets, mulled wine and stodgy food definitely helped get me in the Christmas spirit!
As I mentioned earlier, my 25th birthday was not fun. I’ve never been a fan of birthdays to be honest, and after how horrible the last one had been, I was dreading this one. However, it turned out to be the best birthday I’d had in years. I was with a group of people that I’d been travelling with for over a week (which is a long time when you’re travelling!) and we found ourselves in the Albanian Riviera on the night of my birthday. After a BBQ on the beach we went to a couple of cocktail bars before going to a very bizarre but fun nightclub and dancing to ABBA, surrounded by gangsters and sex workers.
The next day (my actual birthday), a few of us went to Ksamil and took a boat to a private island (!!!) where I then got a pizza delivered to me ON THE BEACH, BY BOAT. I’m sorry, what?
If getting a pizza delivered to you by boat to a private beach isn’t a bloody fantastic way to spend a birthday, I don’t know what is.
‘Who does Dani think she is, a celebrity giving some kind of Oscars acceptance speech?’
Nah. It’s just Christmas and I’m feeling very warm and fuzzy after writing such a lengthy article all about the amazing people and places that I’ve encountered this year. Not only that, but an article about 2018 would not be complete without mentioning some of the people who made it so special. I’ve been lucky enough to meet hundreds of people this year. All of them have been wonderful in their own right, but there are definitely some who have stood out so it’s time to give them a mention, as if by some miracle they are actually reading this.
So, THANK YOU Nadia for being around for months and thriving in Poland, Ukraine and the UK with me. Thank you to Jason, Erika, James and Veerle for being the best Bananagrams family ever, and also to my Albania crew for following me down the coast of Albania to celebrate my birthday with me (Sarah, Jason, John, Alisha and the beautiful Swan Prince). Army Jen, thank you for being you <3 words can’t describe how much ily. Lesley, thank you for being the Despacito slut of Angloville. Andi and Venet, you already got a paragraph so I don’t need to say any more 😉 Graham, thank you for being a fabulously eloquent darling with a heart of gold. Krzysztof, thank you for not drinking alcohol…enough. Grzegorz and Dariusz, dzięki for being two of my favourite Angloville boys ever. Meg, thank u for falling down a cliff and thus giving me enough comedy material to last a lifetime (and thx for coming to visit me in Kotor so much). ANGLOBOAT family, Nadia, Paul, Marek, Sasza and Tomek, thank you for being drunken sailors with me <3 best trip ever. Neneh thanks for being the best roomie twice and getting through that tragic day in Ostrava with me. Marek from Kuklowka, thank you for SPRINKLING my time with so much laughter (I shit you not!!!). Agnieszka and Jacek THANK YOU FOR BEING THE SWEETEST AND BEST COUPLE EVER. Ewan thank u for being such a precious soul in two different countries. Old Town Hostel staff, thanks 4 letting me become a lazy Montenegrin for a while andddd Greg & Tom’s staff, thank you for being so so welcoming and making me feel like one of the family always <3
I know that all of that was unwarranted and cringe but it’s not often I show how much I love people so I feel like it was needed, and also, if I can’t be cringe on my own blog then where can I be?
So, if you’re still reading then by now you know that my 2018 was pretty damn incredible.
From sailing around Poland on a yacht, to wine tasting in the mountains of Albania, to spending my birthday on a beach eating pizza, it’s been a hell of a journey. Not only have my travel experiences been awesome, but I’m lucky enough to have an amazing group of friends back home in Manchester that put up with me swanning around in Europe all year and yet still invite me to things when I’m around, a bank balance that looks a lot better than it should, and a family that aren’t as weird as most other families.
I don’t have any specific goals for 2019 other than to keep travelling, keep making progress with my blog and GET BETTER AT REPLYING TO MESSAGES because I’m literally the worst and I don’t know why anybody is still friends with me.
2018, it’s been a pleasure, xo.