Reconnecting with a Japanese friend this weekend made me think about the trip I’d made to Honshu and Kyushu in 2007. It got me thinking about countries I’d love to visit again. I’m all for exploring new countries – Uganda and Kyrgyzstan will be new destinations for me this year – but it’s also good to revisit places that made an impression. I’m making another visit to Italy this year, this time to see the trulli of Alberobello in Puglia, which I’m really looking forward to. So which are my top five places I’d love to visit again?
This Asian nation’s unique culture makes it special. Last time, I took a sand bath, soaked in an onsen and watched cormorant fishermen catch fish by firelight. In Kyoto I saw a geisha in Gion and in Tokyo, followed in Bill Murray’s footprints by staying at the hotel which featured in the movie Lost in Translation. Coping with the language barrier and different alphabet wasn’t as challenging as I’d expected thanks to video calls and picture menus. I loved how you could buy practically anything from a vending machine, including beer and hot chicken. Even the trains were a revelation, with slippers to wear and attendants that bowed when they served drinks. Next time, I’d like to head inland to the mountains and north to Hokkaido.
My visit to Nuremberg’s Christmas markets this year made me realise just how much I’d enjoyed my visit to Salzburg the year before. The markets themselves were much more handicraft oriented and in their mountain setting, a delight to explore. It would be hard to choose a season though – Austria’s just as beautiful in summer, if not more so. It’s been nine years since I took our elder dog to St Johann in the Tyrol and I’d love to go back with our younger one. We used to go to that part of Austria when I was a child and it’s a place I always feel a sense of calm. Something about the clean mountain air, perhaps, or the hearty, home-cooked food?
Nicaragua and Guatemala
When I eventually reached Nicaragua, I had been delayed two days, detained by the “Weekend Whiteout” in New York City. Despite the shortened time, I very much enjoyed the city of Granada and its colourful colonial core. Nearby, I explored volcanoes and cloud forest, and took leisurely lunches beside tranquil lakes. I’ve always felt that the trip was a little rushed, though, so it would be great to go back and explore at a more leisurely pace. Guatemala was equally charming, but a disappointing hotel on the edge of Antigua took the edge off my stay there. It would be fun to revisit around the time of Day of the Dead and compare the experience to the wonderful trip I made to Oaxaca a few years back. In a better hotel, of course.
As a die-hard Neighbours fan, boarding the bright blue minibus back in 2005 was a rite of passage. But now, as well as paying a visit to Pin Oak Court, the sets themselves are included in the tour and regular pub nights offer a chance to meet cast members. That in itself is a reason to go back, but I’d also like to spend some time in the north west of the country which is blessed with some stunning scenery. Taking a road trip north from Broome to the Bungle Bungles and beyond would be quite the adventure. (Hey, if Helen Daniels painted it, count me in!) I’d also love to ride the Ghan, Australia’s iconic train linking Adelaide and Darwin, stopping off to see Brolga and his kangaroos in the red centre along the way.
I’ve visited Morocco several times since my first visit in 1997 and there’s still plenty more I’d like to see. A new high speed train service would be a real treat to try out – on that first visit I chugged my way from Tangier to Marrakesh and back again at a snail’s pace. Last trip, I planned to visit the coastal town of Agadir for a day trip and would have done, had I not been laid low with a bout of food poisoning (don’t eat the salad!) The blue city of Chefchaouen looks so photogenic it would be irresistible, another for the wish list. I’m told its cobbled lanes lead to leather workers and weavers. I’m a big fan of Moroccan style when it comes to home furnishings – I know it would be hard to resist a bit of shopping.
Is there somewhere you’ve visited that you’d love to go back to? I’d love to hear about it.
Raindrops splattered the windscreen like sound effects in a kid’s comic. The summer storm had intensified and visibility was quickly changing from irritatingly poor to downright dangerous. From the back of the car came a half hearted grumble. Einstein didn’t much care for rain at the best of times. This current assault had triggered the rear wipers he detested and he was making his feelings clear.
We’d done a lot of car trips, Einstein and I. My parents had a house on the Mosel and we were regular visitors. We had an understanding. In silence, Einstein would endure the ferry crossing and the many hours in the car. As his reward, we took long, companionable walks. I would order a tub of ice cream at one of the riverside cafes and he would bury his nose into it and lick it clean. Together, we explored castles and bought wine. Not once had his wagging tail knocked a bottle over. He revelled in the fuss he invariably received. In turn, I delighted in the jovial salutations that followed when the locals learned his name: Ein-schtein! Back at the house, Mum and Dad spoiled him rotten, indulging his every whim and fussing him on demand.
This trip was a little more ambitious. We’d spent the night at the house, as usual. But today, instead of snoozing lazily in the sun (me) and flopping across the kitchen doorway in the hope of scraps (him), we’d packed up the car and hit the road again. Golden retrievers are a stubborn breed. It had taken some persuasion to prise Einstein from the breakfast dishes and into the boot of the car. Grumpy didn’t cover it.
So now we were on the autobahn bound for Austria, Einstein’s eyes fixed resolutely on the road behind us. Somewhere near Munich, I thought, but it was hard to see the car in front, let alone the road signs. Not that the weather was slowing down the local drivers, who appeared in the rear view mirror out of nowhere and overtook as if we were standing still. A lone woof nudged above the sound of the engine. It was time to pull off the road and take a break. Spotting a motorway service station, I slowed the car and swung into a space in the middle of the car park.
Raising the tailgate, a doleful face greeted me. In protest, Einstein made no attempt to get out. I waited. Ever since he was a puppy, he’d done things at his own pace and there was little point in trying to hurry him. Finally, he got to his feet and jumped down. A wince crossed his face as his paws hit the asphalt. As he moved forward, there was a pronounced limp. Einstein had been known to fake such a limp for effect, so I wasn’t unduly concerned. I wondered, though, if it might be a slight touch of cramp and figured a gentle walk might do him good. Einstein thought otherwise and after a few steps, laid himself down in the middle of the car park, blocking the traffic. I rummaged in my pocket for a treat but found only crumbs.
It was still raining heavily. Droplets of water dampened my hair before percolating slowly and persistently to the nape of my neck and down to the small of my back. On the surface, Einstein’s thick cream curls were slick, his waterproof overcoat perfectly suited to keeping him dry. My rain jacket was somewhat less effective and as a result, my patience was wearing thinner than a gossamer stocking.
“Come on, get up doggo.”
No response. I tried a lighter tone.
“Einy, sweetie, up you get.”
Defiant, Einstein rolled slowly and deliberately onto his side, exhaling deeply. It wasn’t the first time he’d decided to do this. At the park, my usual tactic was to walk away and wait for him to follow, which he did, eventually. Here, I couldn’t risk leaving him, even to grab a treat from the car.
Trying a different tactic, I knelt down and attempted to lever his dead weight upright. It was hopeless. When he was this uncooperative, I simply wasn’t strong enough. I could lift his head and shoulders off the ground, but as soon as I switched to his rear end, he rolled back again. It was a battle of wills and I was losing. Defeated, I began to look around for someone who might help. A couple of passing Dutchmen brushed me off. I couldn’t blame them. What sane person wanted to lift thirty-odd kilos of wet dog? Beneath all that stubbornness he was sweet natured and gentle, but they couldn’t know that.
Time passed at a crawl. Drivers manoeuvred carefully around us and motorists returning to their vehicles took elaborate detours lest they were called upon to assist. I was just going to have to wait for Einstein to move, however long that might take. I allowed myself a wistful daydream of the holiday we could have been enjoying further north and muttered a silent prayer to the Tyrolean gods that the Alps would be worth all this stress – if we ever got there.
After what seemed forever, help arrived in the form of a rotund German with extravagant facial whiskers. His car was parked next to mine. Scanning the scene, he understood my predicament. Without speaking he lifted the boot. Inside was a cool box. And inside that was a fat heap of sausages. My spirits lifted. At last, something to determine whether Einstein was genuinely in pain.
It didn’t take long to get my answer. Spying the sausage, Einstein raised his head and leapt to his feet. He trotted over to the man without a backward glance, miraculously cured. Stiffly, I got to my feet and smoothed down my wet trousers in a vain attempt to look presentable. I walked over, relief mixed with exasperation, as the dog wriggled himself into a perfect sit in front of his new best friend and sneezed with excitement. Gazing up with adoration, Einstein wolfed down the first tasty morsel. With a cute tilt of the head, he raised a damp paw in anticipation of the next.
I grinned. We’d be hiking those Alpine trails after all. Red cheeked, I enticed him to our car and high-tailed it to the border.
Later this month, I’m off to Italy to review trains on behalf of Trenitalia and Trainline Europe, but I shall also be making a brief detour north of the border into Austria. I first visited at the tender age of nine months and since then it’s remained one of my favourite countries for a summertime visit. One of my most treasured memories is from a trip I took with my golden retriever Einstein a few years ago. The Pet Passport Scheme has made taking a pet abroad a simple and easy process. So long as I pack his favourite soft toy, Einstein happily travels in the boot of the car and loves nothing better than to give customs officials a surprise when they open up the tailgate to check what they expect to be luggage.
Here’s what happened when Einstein and I decided to take to the hills…
There was no way either of us was walking up.
Both of us were far too lazy for that, so I’d decided on the gondola. It was located up a gravel track, steep enough to confirm that the decision was a correct one. He looked at me expectantly, checking to make sure I wasn’t going to change my mind and demand that we walk to the top. I looked up the mountain and then at him and then climbed the few steps to the ticket office.
“Ein und ein Hund, bitte.” That was about as far as my German went (grammatically appalling I expect) but taking a dog on a gondola was common practice here and the woman slid me my ticket without comment.
Inside, we hit a snag. The gondola couldn’t stop and the dog wouldn’t move. Einstein was having none of it, digging his back paws firmly into the ground and refusing to go near the terrifying machine with its hum and its swing. Lifting him was not an option; he’s 32kg of solid golden retriever. After several aborted attempts, we managed to board, me first and Einstein preferring to jump into the unknown than remain behind without me.
This walking business was tougher than we thought.
At the upper station, we got off with somewhat less drama and took off at a slight run in the direction of down. Unfortunately, the path passed within a couple of feet of a toboggan run and a couple of kids flew past us, screaming and laughing. Slothful Einstein sensed his chance to speed our return to the village cafe where we’d both enjoyed a splendid Austrian breakfast, and dragged me forward in an attempt to slide down the mountain instead of walk. I yanked hard on his lead and disaster was averted.
Once we actually got into a proper routine, the walk down the meadow and along the mountain stream was really rather pleasant. From time to time, we’d pause to admire the view of the Wilder Kaiser in front of us. Stray clouds caught on craggy summit ridges. Geranium-adorned chalets peaked out from behind pine tree plantations down in the valley.
This area, in the Austrian Tirol, is one of my favourite. I’ve been walking in these mountains, off and on, since I was four years old. In the early days, I remember walks with my younger sister, a lot of cows and bellowing thunder – or was that a lot of thunder and bellowing cows? We got wet, she got chased, that I do remember. Later, as a student, I took Wilder walks, (that’s vill-der, not wild-er) and watched the cows being herded down to the village complete with flower-adorned headdresses for the annual Alm Festival. I always feel calm on these pastures, totally relaxed, breathing in the crisp mountain air and letting the freedom envelope the whole of my being.
That day, the sun shone on Einy and I, but the mountain stream was still icy cold and perfect for soaking tired paws as we trundled downhill. I chattered, he listened, ambling beside me obediently unless he saw a squirrel or a bird or a hiker. Aside from the odd cattle grid, always problematic, the walk passed without further incident and, down in the valley, we reached the main road.
Where was the village?
“Oh, bugger, Einstein. The village has moved. Not sure the last part of our walk is going to be as scenic…”
Yes, this walking business was tougher than we thought, I decided, as we finished our walk along hard pavements. But if you have to tough it out, then tough it out with the Wilder Kaiser in front of you, I’d say.
And so would Einstein, if he could talk.