I intended to start this blog a year ago when I set off as a nomad, but life and work got in the way, so I’m starting on my year’s anniversary (or thereabouts). And what better way to begin than with a look back to my first year on the road. I realise it’s a little silly to post a review of 2015 at the start of February. But what the hell… I started my nomad journey on 27 January 2015, so it covers my first year on the road.
2015 was my third year in business and my first year as a digital nomad, and it was all about me learning how to run a successful business while travelling. I choose to stay in Europe, dividing my time between six countries (plus the UK). I had visited most of the countries before, with the exception of Croatia – a place I’ll definitely be returning to – although most of the cities I lived in were new to me.
In numbers, I slept in 24 different beds in 16 cities across 7 countries, and I took 13 flights and 5 train rides. That’s fairly modest by many people’s standards, but I learned that I prefer to spend at least a month in each location, partly because it makes things cheaper on Airbnb, my preferred method of accommodation, and partly because I was working full-time. By the end of the year, I realised that a month was too little because I didn’t really spend much time growing my business or working on this blog, something I plan to change this year.
Highlights of my year include celebrating Fallas in Valencia, dancing on the beach and in the magical Théâtre de la Mer at the Worldwide Festival in Sète, skydiving in Berlin, attending DNX Global with my tribe – 450 digital nomads – also in Berlin, and the magnificent view from my loft apartment in Split.
There were also some tough times. An ill-advised fling turned into a stalker and left me feeling very vulnerable in my first few days in Seville, and I didn’t research my accommodation in Catania, Sicily, properly, which left me living in the middle of a rundown mafia district where I was repeatedly warned by locals not to wander around unaccompanied. Thankfully, neither situation had a serious outcome, but I learned a couple of valuable lessons there!
OK, here we go …
Ah, Valencia! Valencia has a special place in my heart as it was my first digital nomad home, and it was the place I lived the longest in 2015 – three months in total. It’s no coincidence it’s also the place where I earned the most money!
I had two homes in Valencia, both in Ruzafa, a hip, arty part of town filled with coffee shops, little boutique stores, and restaurants serving excellent value menus del dia. Plus I was lucky enough to be there for the colourful Ruzafa Carnival and Fallas, one of the oldest festivals in Europe and certainly the loudest!
I spent many a happy hour browsing the colourful, political street art; wandering around Turia, the dried-up riverbed that’s now a park; enjoying meals with newfound friends, most notably Valencia’s greatest dish, the paella; and exploring the wetlands of the Albufera National Park. But for me, Valencia is ground-shaking mascletás, (sound fireworks), firecrackers, gunpowder smoke and giant fallas, huge paper and wood sculptures that go up in flames on the final night of Fallas as Valencia burns. If you get the opportunity to experience Fallas in Valencia, do it – just make sure you book your accommodation well in advance!
I spent a brief three weeks in Seville, but it certainly wasn’t uneventful due to the unwanted attentions of a slightly mad Frenchman who threatened to ruin my first few days there. Thankfully I had a wonderful Airbnb host in fiery flamenco dancer Valeria, I had some good friends in town for a few days, and I met others through the awesome nomad community, so I was well protected.
Once I could relax, I threw myself into Seville life, wandering the colourful narrow streets, exploring the elaborate architecture of the Catedral, Giralda, Plaza de España, and Alcázar, and stuffing my face in Seville’s many delightful tapas bars, returning a few times to my favourites, Eslava and Dúo Tapas.
I also perspired as Seville heated up to over 40 degrees in May!
This was the first of two visits to Berlin in 2015, both for conferences. I was only in town for eight days, but spent that time with three good friends in Prenzlauer Berg, a trendy district in the former East. The conference, Alive in Berlin, was interesting from a personal development point of view, and it was a great place to meet other business owners and entrepreneurs. A group of us went skydiving afterwards – an exhilarating experience that left me buzzing.
While there, we took a stroll around the eerie, abandoned fairground, Spreepark, wondering if we were brave enough to jump in and have a proper look around (we weren’t!).
This was my first visit to Lisbon, but it certainly won’t be my last. I fell in love with this city. It felt darker and edgier than places I’d lived in Spain, but somehow friendlier. Lisbon’s all about narrow winding streets, sweeping vistas, rattling yellow trams, late-night street parties, and cheap delicious food. And hills, you can’t forget the hills!
I was lucky enough to be there through June, when the city celebrates her main festival: Santo Antonio, the sardine festival. The streets were decorated with brightly coloured, fluttering bunting, the smell of sardines infused the air, and there were numerous free concerts scattered around the city as Lisbon partied.
It was also the city I learned not to place too much faith in Google Maps, as it walked me up Gloria, one of the steepest hills in the city, when there was a far easier route. Nothing like kissing a group of strangers hello when you’re dripping sweat and breathless to leave a good first impression!
This was an undisputed highlight of my year. I’ve been listening to Gilles Peterson since 1998, when my then-boyfriend turned up at my flat in Liverpool with a cassette (because that’s how we rolled then) of GP’s then-new Radio 1 show. And I’ve been obsessed ever since. 2015 was the 10th anniversary of the Worldwide Festival in Sète and it happened in my 40th year, so it was fate – I had to go.
I ummed and ahhed about this because, while I was travelling alone, I wasn’t sure about rocking up to a festival on my own. And it was strange at times, but I didn’t regret it for a second. This was seven days and seven nights of my favourite artists and DJs playing my kind of music on the beach, in the Théâtre de la Mer – quite possibly the best venue in the world – and at the lighthouse, mixed with delicious fish suppers and glasses of rosé wine. Super content does not come close…
(I’ve just booked my ticket for Worldwide 2016, so if you’re going to be in town, give me a shout!)
I had a brief pit stop in Nice so I could catch a cheap flight to Berlin. After seven days and nights of dancing, the last of which finished at 6.30am, I have to admit much of my time here was spent asleep or walking around in a daze. But I enjoyed wandering the colourful Old Town (Vieux Nice), strolling along the Promenade des Anglais in the balmy July heat, and I loved the Marc Chagall Museum. Oh, and my Airbnb host had a gorgeous 4-month-old Husky puppy, so I was in heaven!
Mid-July saw a return to Berlin, this time for DNX Global, an event that brought together 450 digital nomads and aspiring nomads. There were some fascinating talks and workshops about this lifestyle, but best of all it was an opportunity to connect with other nomads and learn more about the variety of things people do to fund their location independent lifestyles.
This time, I stayed a month to explore Berlin in more depth and really get a feel for this creative, multicultural city where recent history is still very much present. I overdosed on art thanks to the excellent value three-day Berlin Museum Pass, and explored Berlin’s recent turbulent history by walking sections of the old Berlin wall, taking a tour around the stark Stasi Prison, home to unimaginable horrors, and soaking up the sombre atmosphere of the Holocaust Memorial. So strange to think this city was divided in my lifetime…
It was also a time to enjoy Berlin at her summer best, with visits to nearby forests, a dusk stroll down the landing strip at Tempelhof Airfield before stumbling on an impromptu busking session in the community gardens, an entertaining afternoon enjoying the karaoke at Mauerpark, and lazy evenings sitting outside cafés sampling Berlin’s delicious, cheap food.
This was my second trip to Hamburg in 2015, both to catch flights, but this time I stayed a few nights to have a little nosy round. The first time I’d stayed in the gloriously seedy Reeperbahn red-light district, close to the port, in a house where the shower-room was separated from the kitchen by a curtain. This time I went a little more upmarket moving inland to Altona, where I stumbled across a fantastic Greek restaurant that became my regular for a few nights.
I love maritime cities and Hamburg was no exception. I only had a brief taster thanks to my workload, but in that time I checked out the Hamburg Kunsthalle – the largest art gallery in Germany, which was undergoing renovation so I could only see a fraction of the paintings – wandered the perimeter of the Alster Lake, and breathed in the salty air at the port.
Oh Sicily! I wanted to love you, but you really tested me!
Until this point I’d stayed in cities, always with an Airbnb host. By mid-August I was craving beaches, greenery and a little personal space. But I left it late to book my accommodation and found myself hunting for a flat of my own for a month, close to a beach, only a couple of weeks before I needed it. I wanted to relax, rebalance myself and plan the rest of the year.
I was so grateful to find this cute little apartment in Catania that I booked it immediately. I arrived, planning to spend my month chilling on a beach in the morning, working during the hottest part of the day, and wandering around the city at night checking out Sicilian cuisine. Instead I found myself in one of the main mafia areas where it wasn’t safe to walk alone at night. There was no easy access to a beach, and not a tree in sight. And I was completely alone. Oh, and I had a bout of diarrhoea and vomiting that knocked me out for a few days.
My month was eventually saved by a Sicilian man who’s immensely proud of his home and was determined to change my mind. And he did a pretty good job, taking me to explore the dramatic black volcanic landscape of Etna, rowing me to a small rocky island off Aci Trezza for a day of sunshine and swimming, and showing me the nicer side of Catania and the nearby towns and villages. But a return to Sicily is definitely on the cards as I barely scratched the surface of this intriguing island, though I definitely witnessed some of her dark side.
Arriving in my loft apartment on the fourth floor of a charming old apartment block in Split was like being let out of jail after my home in Sicily (where there were bars and mosquito netting on my windows, which I couldn’t open anyway due to the noise of the road). I could see the mountains that form the backdrop to Split, look over the old town and bell tower to the green slopes of Marjan Forest Park, and peek through the buildings to the sparkling blue harbour, filled with yachts and ferries. I never got tired of that view – it was the first thing I looked at in the morning and the last at night.
I adored wandering around the atmospheric old town, clambering over Marjan seeking out hidden chapels and stony beaches with clear, cool water, and sampling Croatian food and wine. And of course I got my Game of Thrones on by visiting some of the filming locations, including the mighty Klis Fortress (and if you ever make it there, you have to walk to Perlica to sample the best lamb I’ve ever eaten – and yes, I’ve been to New Zealand!).
I also got to hang out with some other nomad friends who happened to be in town at the same time, and we had a fun day out on the neighbouring island of Brac, where we spent the afternoon chilling on the stunning Zlatni Rat beach.
I stayed in Split for four weeks, but could easily envisage basing myself here for longer – it was definitely one of my favourite places of 2015. And did I mention the chocolate shop Nadalina? Their dried fig and sherry chocolate – wow!
I only had a week in Zadar and it was a busy week in terms of work, but Zadar is a small city so I saw the main attractions.
The old town sits on a small peninsula, and damage during the war means that ugly blocky buildings sit amongst the Roman ruins and Byzantine churches. But that adds to its charm somehow. I adored the Sea Organ and spent a couple of evenings sitting on the steps, watching the sun dip behind the islands, listening to the wistful sounds of the waves pushing through the intricate system of pipes. The neighbouring Sun Salutation is a solar installation with 300 multi-layered glass panels, which collects the heat of the sun throughout the day and lets rip with a colourful display after sunset. And the view from the top of the cathedral’s bell tower on a clear sunny day is not to be missed.
I rounded off my nomad year by returning to one of my favourite countries, Spain, spending five weeks in Málaga, Andalucía. Málaga surprised me. It’s the main hopping off point for the Costa del Sol, but it’s a world away from high rises, smug expats and English breakfasts.
The pedestrianized historical centre houses a giant Gothic cathedral, referred to as La Manquita (the one-armed woman) as one of her two towers remains unfinished. The Roman theatre is overlooked by the Alcazaba – Málaga’s answer to Seville’s Alcázar and Granada’s Alhambra, although not as magnificent – and the 11th century Castillo de Gibralfaro presides over the city from the top of the hill. And damn was that a climb!
The beach and port are excellent spots for a stroll, and Málaga is blessed with an abundance of art galleries, including the Picasso Museum, Centre Pompidou, Russian Museum and Contemporary Art Centre, all of which are free on Sunday afternoons. It’s also home to delicious tapas bars, Pedro Ximenez sherry (pure nectar in a glass) and fantastic almonds.
I got an excellent deal on a smart new Airbnb flat – although I did have to juggle with limited wifi – and when not exploring or eating, I found myself cosying up and enjoying my own space before returning to the UK to spend Christmas with my family.
So that’s my review of 2015. Throughout this year, I’ll be returning to some of the events above to flesh out the stories in greater detail.
Overall, I loved last year. I learned so much about myself, personally and professionally, and I finally achieved my dream of becoming a digital nomad.
On New Year’s Eve, I spent some time reflecting on my year with the help of Susannah Conway’s Unravelling the Year Ahead workbook. While I acknowledged all the amazing times and successes of my year, I also reflected on things I could do better, both with my business and my lifestyle, of which there are plenty. And I’m going to hold myself accountable to these by publishing a blog on my goals for 2016 shortly.
(All pictures are my own except the skydiving ones, which were taken by my tandem jumper, Rade, on his GoPro.)
Any questions or requests for things you’d like to hear more about? Leave a comment below.