Last year, 2019, was my fifth year as a nomad – time flies! But it was a bit of a strange year, personally and professionally, for several reasons.
I struggled with finances. I didn’t plan properly after a super-successful year (goddamn those payments on account!) and I waited for my new website to launch before marketing for new clients (doh!) – and in the end we were three months behind schedule. Plus, the extreme uncertainty caused by Brexit had a very negative effect on me throughout last year, not least because I couldn’t plan too far ahead.
I remain deeply grateful to house sitting. Not only is it a wonderful way to see the world, but I hardly paid for any accommodation all year and I had some truly wonderful experiences (along with a couple of challenging ones!). I chose my locations based on where decent sits came up, rather than choosing new destinations. But while I didn’t visit any new countries, most of the towns and cities I stayed in were new to me, so I had plenty to explore.
Here’s what I got up to in 2019.
2019 Travel Review
I only visited five countries including the UK in 2019, all of which I’d visited before. But they’re all countries I adore and in each case I got to explore different regions and cities.
Along the way, I hopped on 12 flights, 7 train journeys (excluding the UK airport hops), 7 intercity bus journeys, and I slept in 23 beds.
Highlights included two long stays in Rethymno, Crete with the most adorable little puppies, a blissful month lakeside in Annecy, and finally getting to spend more than a night in Barcelona. I also met my long-time online friend and business coach Caroline Leon in La Sénia, and returned to Sète for music, friendship and a wedding.
This is my travel review of 2019.
As a Greek archaeology graduate I’ve visited Athens several times, but it’s a place I’ll never tire of. After securing a housesit in Crete, I had the opportunity to pop back to the Greek capital, revisit some sites, and catch up with an old friend.
I stayed in Athens twice in 2019, a week before and a week after my Cretan adventures. For ease I’ve dealt with these two weeks together.
I took my new camera up Filopappou Hill to admire the views across Athens, visited the Museum of Cycladic Art and revisited the National Archaeological Museum, spent some quality time with my friend, her family and gorgeous new baby, and reacquainted myself with one of my favourite cuisines.
I first visited Chania in 1990 with my family, and I couldn’t resist stopping off for a couple of nights en route to Rethymno. I wished I could’ve stayed longer – it’s an excellent nomad location.
The Venetian harbour is so goddamn photogenic, and I was there on a perfect winter’s evening with stunning natural light. I also had time for a trip to the archaeological museum and, of course, I stuffed my face with more superb Greek food.
Ah, Rethymno! While I briefly visited Rethymno in 1990, this was my first opportunity to spend a chunk of time there – and I loved it.
I lived in Rethymno for eight weeks over February and March. It chucked it down for much of the time – wettest February on record, ironically at exactly the same time as the UK was basking in an uncommonly hot February. But I was in a cosy flat with central heating, 90 seconds walk from the beach and above a supermarket (which came in soooo handy on those rainy days!).
Being Greece the sun still shone and I made the most of the good weather to explore the old town and fort, experience Greece’s second largest carnival, and devour lots more Greek food (special mention to Raki Ba Raki). But my highlight? Undoubtedly the two puppies, Daenerys Stormborn, the most badarse Yorkie around, and Scruffy Bear, the sweetest little rescue dog.
I specialised in Aegean prehistory for my MA in Greek archaeology, focusing on the Minoans. So naturally I spent a few days in Heraklion before leaving Crete, to revisit the archaeological museum and the palace at Knossos. It’s hard to explain how much I love this period. Seeing some of the artefacts in the museum was like revisiting old friends – the snake goddesses, the gold bee pendant from Malia, the bull’s head rhyton and those magnificent frescoes. I’ll never tire of looking at them.
I was also delighted to stumble upon Peskesi. This legendary restaurant specialises in authentic Cretan cuisine, even serving some dishes from the Minoan period. Their food is divine, and they looked after me as a solo traveller and were delighted by my almost-unable-to-contain-myself excitement at eating food based on the Minoan diet. Go if you’re anywhere near Heraklion, but book in advance – the queues were building up in April…
After popping to the UK for Easter and a change of clothes, it was time for my first French housesit of the year. I jumped on this sit a little quickly after having two housesits cancelled for this period, and I learned a valuable lesson about doing pre-sit checks. My hosts were a lovely couple and the cats very sweet, but we had quite different views on hygiene. I had to buy cleaning products and flea spray, and spent the first week scrubbing the house and scratching my legs. I never felt entirely comfortable.
Luckily, Bayonne is an incredible city (famous for its chocolate and ham – yup, I was in heaven!). I took every opportunity to wander around the gloriously photogenic old town delighting at the architecture and gardens, and sample as much food and wine as possible. I spent ages watching a juvenile peregrine on the cloisters, and thoroughly enjoyed my day trip to Saint Jean de Luz (despite getting a little pink from the unexpected sunshine!).
Annecy was house-sitting heaven! I spent a month in a beautiful, light-filled flat just 10 minutes’ walk from Lake Annecy and 25 minutes to the famous old town. It was glorious, but most glorious of all was Charly, my little lion! This sandy, longhaired beauty stole my heart. He was full of personality, proud and playful, and I loved the way he crawled up the bed in the morning when he realised I was awake to curl up under my chin.
I sunbathed on the lake’s edge and swam in the refreshing glacial waters, roamed the historic old town and picturesque canals, took a boat trip on the lake, and visited a couple of nature reserves. It was also the place where I celebrated Liverpool winning their sixth Champion’s League – I may have spent the rest of the month singing, ‘we’ve conquered all of Europe…’.
Sète is a firmly established annual pilgrimage for me. And each year it’s ever more amazing. The weather is superb – last year was hot, hot, hot – the music is always sublime, and it’s the perfect opportunity to sip champagne and rosé wine while slurping oysters and munching seafood. But best of all is the Worldwide family.
I enjoy travelling alone. I’m used to my own company and I rarely get lonely. But I LOVE meeting up with friends, and each year I meet more and more awesome people at this festival, which brings together a delightful mix of music lovers from across the world. This year was extra special because a couple that I met at my first Worldwide in 2015 got married at La Ola on the beach. It was the perfect day and set the vibe for a loved up, chilled out couple of weeks.
I had a two-week gap between the festival in Sète and my next housesit in the neighbouring town of Marseillan, so I hopped on the TGV to Paris for a short 10-day sit in the burbs at Le Plessis-Robinson. I spent a night either side of the sit with a friend from Sète, Rebecca from Love Montreuil, who showed me around her creative hometown.
Much of my time in Paris was spent beavering away on my new website as we worked towards launch, though I had a day off to explore a city I’ve visited numerous times – but not for 20 years!
I was in Paris during a heat wave and got caught on my last night when downstairs enjoying a delicious steak in the sunshine – a tropical storm whipped up which left me soaked to the skin, hair plastered to my face, and my steak and peppercorn sauce swimming in water. Whoops!
After the dramatic end to my Parisian stay, I hopped on the TGV back to Marseillan, a sleepy fishing port next to Sète. This was a magical housesit in a lovely family home, and I fell head over heels in love with Ziggy, a young cat who was super affectionate and playful.
Most of my time here was spent working on this website as we prepared for launch. But I still had time to wander around the port, sample oysters and mussels fresh from the lagoon, tour the Noilly Prat vermouth distillery, and head back to my favourite spot along the Sète-Marseillan beach for a day of swimming, sunbathing and seafood-munching.
Unbelievably, despite many visits to Spain, I’ve never spent more than a night in Barcelona. So I was delighted to be chosen for a housesit looking after two nervy but enigmatic black cats in Eixample.
This was a relatively short sit for me, but I managed to pack in lots of sightseeing thanks to its fantastic location. I spent a few hours wandering through a festival in Gracia and ate incredible tapas – my meal at La Pepita was outstanding.
But the highlight was exploring some of Gaudí’s creations. Yes, they’re pricey to visit and I was wary of them being overhyped, but I was blown away. Casa Batlló was inventive, Park Güell enchanting, and as for the Sagrada Familia … it’s simply one of the most magical buildings I’ve ever visited. I did some pre-trip research and planned my visit for around 4pm, when the interior glows in the afternoon sun. It moved me to tears.
La Sénia, Spain
My trip to Barcelona presented me with another long-overdue opportunity. My online friend and business coach, Caroline Leon, lives a couple of hours south of the city and we finally had the opportunity to meet in person. She invited me to spend a few days with her and her family in La Sénia, a quiet Catalan town near the mountains.
I loved being in a small, non-touristy Spanish town (even if my long stay in France meant my Spanish was even rustier than usual and Catalan was obviously the main language), and experiencing a slice of everyday Spanish life. We wandered round the sleepy town, visited the charming seaside resort of Peñíscola, and went on a mystery tour into the mountains to visit El Jardí de Peter (Peter’s Garden), a magical sculpture garden that’s a labour of love for its arty creator. Best of all, we spent many happy hours chatting over food.
It took all of a nanosecond to shout ‘yes!’ when Rachel and Michael invited me back to look after their delightful puppies for another six weeks in September and October – one of my favourite times to be in Greece.
I was busy with work, but I’d had a good ole explore earlier in the year so I could just chill out and enjoy being. I loved my afternoon swims, revisited many of my favourite eateries, and enjoyed my evening walks with the puppies, as Daenerys tried to speak to every single person we met and pull me into every bar we passed. I also took them out to dinner a couple of times (their absolute favourite thing) – they were the best dates I had all year!
I spent November in Nantes, looking after a house, permaculture garden and a beautiful but feisty cat! It was a wonderful sit, although Helia, my companion, was challenging. She could be territorially aggressive and wasn’t particularly impressed at the stranger in her home. But she calmed down eventually – buying a toy that I kept in my pocket ‘just in case’ was key to our improved relationship!
I loved Nantes. It’s such a fun, creative city. I spent hours wandering the Green Line, which weaves visitors through gardens and lanes and past the main tourist sites, and is littered with street art and sculptures. I spent a magical afternoon at the steampunk park, Les Machines de l’Île, took the ferry to the colourful fishing village of Trentemoult, and took full advantage of the fabulous Christmas market.
Valletta & Mellieha, Malta
My final trip of the year was a short-but-sweet return to Malta. I had a couple of nights in Valletta when I arrived, where I roamed the picturesque streets taking photos for hours. It’s a tiny city but so beautiful.
And then I went to Mellieha on the north of the island, where I had a lovely sit on top of the hill with a view to Gozo and Comino from my generous balcony. It was a very chilled stay with a beautiful elderly dog called Megan, who was an absolute sweetheart. We had a couple of gentle walks each day (she has arthritis so we ambled and she decided how far she wanted to go), lots of cuddles, and I had a little explore of the beach and nature reserve at the bottom of the hill.
And that’s what I got up to in 2019.
The Brexit Effect
I joked last year that I must be able to write my review of the year before the middle of January. And here we are in the middle of February (well, it’s only a month later…). So what’s been going on?
To say that Brexit had a negative effect on my mood and mental state last year would be an understatement. I spent much of the year feeling so overwhelmed, negative and uncertain about what I was going to do, that I couldn’t find the enthusiasm to write anything personal. I felt like I was trying to walk on quicksand.
My business and lifestyle is based upon freedom of movement, and it’s deeply precious to me. By the end of this year, it’s gone. And it’s made me question everything.
There is a positive of sorts. My ideal lifestyle has always been to have a base somewhere warm, and to spend six months at home and six months travelling. Now that has to become a reality, because I will no longer be able to move around Europe as freely as I have been. (Though jeez am I pissed off that I no longer have the freedom of choice.)
However, I always wanted my base to be in Spain – my Spanish, though nowhere near fluent, is one of my better languages and I have more friends there. But my main priority now is to gain residency and work towards citizenship, so I can regain my EU citizenship and all the wonderful benefits that are pivotal to my life. And Spain doesn’t allow dual citizenship.
So I’ve moved the goalposts to Portugal. I’m struggling with that decision a little, as it’s a choice I’ve made for practical reasons rather than following my heart. But it’s an equally beautiful country with warm, welcoming people. And although I find the language much more challenging and I know fewer people, it’s a new challenge and a new adventure. And I always love a good adventure.
There’s a lot to sort out before it becomes a reality. I have to set up my business differently, and I need to get a decent pot of savings together – as a nomad I haven’t paid rent for over five years. That thought is a little scary! And despite travelling alone for five years, I’m much more daunted about moving to a new place alone.
I’m also really looking forward to putting down roots again. Making new friends and building a community around me – I’ve missed this so much. And I can still travel. To get permanent residency in Portugal, I need to be in the country for 183+ days each year, so that leaves just under half a year to roam the world – while knowing I have my own home to return to.
And where does that leave The Wandering Wordsmith? Well, for the next six months or so my focus is on saving and preparing for my move, so I’ll be concentrating on travel copywriting, as that’s where the money is. But my head is FULL of stories – I’ve had so many adventures over the last five years that I haven’t written about, that I almost don’t know where to start. Not to mention a heap of tips for long-term travellers and digital nomads. So I’ll try to fit in as much as I can.
I’m also aiming to write a few personal posts about my move, the struggles I’m facing, and the reality of Brexit – while most of us who have been following Brexit closely knew the realities long ago, many people are so blasé about it they really haven’t a clue how their lives are going to change. And, if things continue as they currently are, a whole world of shit is facing the UK. Being blissfully ignorant is wonderful, but it’s more important to be prepared. And to fight for the country we want, not a place that only works for the racists, the rich and their Russian/American backers.
Anyway, this has turned into a much longer post that I anticipated. So, if you’re still reading, I’d love your Portugal suggestions. Where’s a great place to call home? Lisbon is too expensive for me right now, so I’m looking for a town/small city with a good mix of locals/immigrants/nomads/entrepreneurs, that has an arty, authentic vibe with easy access to nature. Suggestions so far include Cascais, Setúbal, Lagos, Aveiro, and Coimbra.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Chime in below…