In Summary: 12 in 2012 (Part 1)

The last day of this year finds me marveling at what a year this has been. I set out to explore at least twelve countries I’d never been to, and as the year comes to a close, I can proudly say I achieved this goal. And then some.


In January,  I visited Maribor, Slovenia which was one of the two European Capitals of Culture this year. To be perfectly honest, it left me distinctly underwhelmed, though I enjoyed Slovenia’s second biggest city’s fresh air, marvelled at it’s highly developed wine culture and for a really long time after I came home, tried hard to figure out whether the city truly holds the Guinness Book of World Records for the oldest vine in the world. The jury is still out on this.

February found me visiting Helsinki, Finland for the very first time, a city which was this year’s World Design Capital. I particularly enjoyed eating sapas ( a Finnish version of tapas popular at a local restaurant called Juuri) among other innovative culinary adventures (see also A21). There wasn’t much to do or see in the thick of the Finnish winter but wade in knee-high snow (yes, even in the downtown Helsinki area) and revel in design. By the end of the trip, I was counting down frenetically to my March trip to sunny Sath Afrika!

One of the artists exhibiting her wares at Arts on Main. She sold me a pair of earings.

One of the artists exhibiting her wares at Arts on Main. She sold me a pair of earings.

South Africa was the truth! Growing up in Africa, it was a country you always knew you had to visit at least once in your life. Not so much because of the wild life — we have plenty of that in Kenya — but because of it’s vibrant culture and cities which were a perfect hybrid of African and Western sensibilities. When I finally got there, Johannesburg showed me some of its painful past in the Mandela House Museum in Soweto, a still segregated present in its affluent white neighbourhoods in Sandton — where heavily armed (white) security firms patrolled the streets and scowled at me as I walked through  it — and a vibrant arts and crafts scene in Arts on Main,  where young people black and white alike gather to enjoy, sell and purchase art while eating, drinking and generally binge merry. Cape Town managed to only take some of the bad aftertaste parts of Johannesburg left in me since it was just as segregated,while the wine country that is Babylonstoren in Stellenbosch succeeded in inebriating me with more than just its stellar wines.

April found me in my stomping grounds, Europe, this time visiting Brussels, Belgium. In Tin Tin’s home country I indulged the child in me by tracing the Comic Strip Trail – cartoon murals hidden on various walls and facades throughout the city. I can’t begin to explain the thrill my directionally-challenged self felt each time I clocked and ticked off a life-size comic. In the evenings, I chased culinary experiences with the same fervour, even succeeding at at one point to thoroughly offend the staff at a bib gourmand restaurant when I asked if I could take my dessert back to my nearby hotel with me. My request was honoured, but the expressions on their faces said it all. Good times.

Seebach, Tyrol in the springtime.

Seebach, Tyrol in the springtime.

May, like March, was another dual-strike month, where I visited two wildly different destinations in two different continents. The first trip of that month found me making my way from London to the Tyrolean Alps near Innsbruck, Austria. Arriving at the final destination was like walking in on an artificial set of The Sound of Music, only it was as real as they come. I was in heaven. Nestled at over 5000 ft above sea level, the place is a haven for skiers and other winter sport enthusiasts. In the summer, the small wooded forests traversed by blue-water streams, vast expanses of green fields coupled with small wooden houses make it look like something out of a fairy tale. I loved Seebach , but it was at Achensee, where I stayed at The Wiesenhof, conveniently located both near a fresh-water lake and a very high mountain, that I really got unplugged. I want and need to go back, this time in the thick of winter.

A father and his daughter take a break from the scorching afternoon sun at the base of the Atlas mountain.

A father and his daughter take a break from the scorching afternoon sun at the base of the Atlas mountain.

The last part of the month found me in the company of five other ladies in Marrakech, Morocco, giving me flashbacks to the Sex and the City movie as well, as well as Season 3 of The Real Housewives of New York which takes the housewives out of familiar Manhattan to Marrakech. Unlike the ladies in both the movie and series, there was no fighting, and certainly no bumping into old loves (how serendipitous, SJP). Instead, there was a lot of wining, dining and pampering, as well as a very educational excursion to the Atlas mountains. I liberally feasted on various variations of the country’s tagines,  before wobbling to a spa for a hammam (which Moroccans claim was theirs long before the Turks found fame with it). The highlight of the trip was an excursion to the Atlas mountains, which not only exposed me to the Berber people, who still live like they did hundreds of years ago, but also to two items that are now part of my beauty arsenal: Argan oil and Ghassoul (cleansing) mud.

View of Dubrovnik's Old Town from atop the old town's city walls.

View of Dubrovnik’s Old Town from atop the old town’s city walls.

In June, I finally visited a place that had been on my hit-list for five years. I had wanted to travel to Dubrovnik, Croatia since 2006, after reading and seeing pictures of Catherine Zeta-Jones and her husband Michael Douglas walking through it’s Old Town. So when low-cost airline Monarch began flying there this year, you could almost have predicted that would be my next destination. Although a bit of a tourist trap, Dubrovnik charms the pants (and bucks – it’s très expensive) off you with it’s understated elegance. Despite the distinct lack of locals actually living there – many of them ran for the hills when the city rose both in popularity and cost of living – it remains one of the least annoying tourist traps I have ever set foot in.

Stay tuned for part two!

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