Are we really halfway through the year already? Time is flying.
It was a busy half year in terms of travelling with a focus on shorter but more frequent trips to locations closer to home. That was a change to the past few years when most of my travels were long-distance. It was a very welcome change though, as it gave me the opportunity to (re)discover many exciting places ‘just around the corner’ so to speak.
Travel memories: Highlights from my first six months of 2018
In March, I went to the gorgeous Odenwald regions, just about an hour outside of Frankfurt. This lesser known German region is dotted with a number of beautiful small medieval towns spotting well maintained fairytale historic cores.
I had chosen the area and time in particular to revisit the historic local Easter Egg Market in Michelstadt which is taking place annually over one weekend round about a month before Easter. Although less known as the famous Christmas markets, Easter Egg markets have a long tradition in Germany and are great if you want to discover more about traditional Easter Egg decorations.
I stayed at the beautiful, family-owned and led hotel Schafhof Amorbach, perched on the hills just outside of the small town of Amorbach. A lovely small country hotel that totally fits my preference for small, authentic hotels. There is also a Michelin-Star restaurant on-site, with a focus on locally sourced food.
I also revisited the idyllic Rheingau, one of Germany’s thirteen official wine regions just west of Frankfurt. Albeit it is one of the smaller German wine regions, it is one of the historically most significant, home to the country’s oldest and largest wineries. The area is furthermore home to many beautiful historic monasteries and castles, and gorgeous medieval villages perched along the Rhine river.
I had a visit to the two Michelin-Star Restaurant Schwarzenstein Nils Henkel on my list ever since the chef opened its new restaurant after a two year hiatous at the renown Hotel Burg Schwarzenstein in the little Rheingau village of Geisenheim, so logically this was a main part of the trip.
However, when travelling, I make a point to explore unique places along the way where I can. Therefore, I also took advantage of the Rheingau trip to venture a bit further into the adjacent Palatinate wine region to check out Mhou Ostrich Farm. I found this place while doing research into buying ostrich meat in Germany. If you think it strange to hear about an ostrich farm in Germany, it seems to be a business that is taking off here and other European countries as well. This iy maybe no big surprise considering ostrich meat is one of the healthiest (and very tasty) meats but following severe restrictions exporting any poulty products from around Africa after the outbreak of bird flew a few years back, there is a market gap to fill.
A for my travelling to other European countries, in went back to the beautiful Spanish La Rioja wine region in the northern part of the country for a few days. The region is an absolute dream for both wine and architecture lovers. Several of the local wineries boast some of the most stunning modern architecture. If that’s the thing you like, Bodegas, Baigorri, R. Lopez de Heredia, Bodegas Ysios and Bodegas Vina Real will take your breath away.
One of the oldest La Rioja wineries, Bodegas Marques de Riscal also needs to be mentioned with regards to stunning architecture. Although in this case, it is not the winery itself but the property’s on-site vineyard hotel spotting an incredible futuristic design (by Frank Gehry, the same who also built the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao). The hotel is also home of one of the few Michelin-starred restaurants in the Rioja region. I finally ticked off both from my bucket list and it was a total blast!
Since visiting La Rioja meant to fly into Bilbao, it was an easy decision to make a stopover there as well. The city has captured much attention (and significantly rising visitor numbers) thanks to the stunning Guggenheim Bilbao museum. This splendid structure alone is definitely worth a visit but the city also offers lots of other interesting things to do.
Since food is always an important part of my travels, and I absolutely adore the Spanish tapas, I had to put in some serious time to try out the local equivalent: the famous Basque pintxos. They come in as many varied forms of food as the more know tapas albeit pintxos are usually served cold and on a slice of bread and should be definitely enjoyed with a glass of wine.
Believe it or not, but I went to Bordeaux for the first time ever this year. Now this might sound rather strange for someone who loves travelling wine regions. But I’ve been undecided if it would be worth visiting the city for a long time, still in awe off its past reputation being neglected and largely in decay. After a period of serious restaurant and refurbishment however, the city today is nothing short of splendid.
In addition to admire the many beautiful monuments and strolling through the small historic streets and squares, exploring the city’s top wine bars was also on top of my list; and today no visit to Bordeaux is complete without spending some time at Cité du Vin, the futuristic wine museum that opened in 2016. And off course, I had to go to the splendid Bordeaux vineyards outside of the city.
Also a first, I went to Valencia for a few days; and I was absolutely wowed by Spain’s third largest city. Often overlooked as most people tend to flock to Barcelona or Madrid, this coastal city is the perfect location for a city break (the historic core is amazing) combined with some serious time at the beach!
If you follow my blog, you will know I am totally drawn into modern fancy architecture. No surprise I immediately fell in love with Valencia’s futuristic City of Arts and Sciences. Designed by Santiago Calatrava and Felix Candela, the first building of the complex was completed in 1998. Yet the whole area still looks like it belongs to a time in the future. That clearly tells something about the imagination of the architects and how cities that have the courage to embrace innovation can make a difference.
The only slightly longer trip this year was to Dubai, a city I love to return to as there is always something new and exciting to discover, from new shiny skyscrapers (remember my addiction to architecture?) to the latest hotel and restaurant openings.
However, this year’s highlight was a day trip to Abu Dhabi, where I visited the new Louvre Abu Dhabi. As much because of its stunning architecture (by star architect Jean Nouvel) as for the fantastic art with permanent and changing visiting exhibitions.
As usual when in Dubai, I stayed a couple of days at the stunning Palace Downtown just opposite the imposing Burj Khalifa, currently the highest building in the world. Since I’ve never been up on one of the two visitor platforms of Burj Khalifa, this year I had to treat myself to the amazing views over the city and into the desert. However, instead of going to the visitor platform, I decided to book a table at the currently highest restaurant in the word, At.mosphere. I can’t say what was better, the views (which are spectacular) or the exquisite food.
Still in Dubai, I also spend a few relaxing days on Palm Jumeirah where I stayed at Anantara The Palm Dubai. I’ve been there before and I absolutely love their lagoon access rooms, where you can literally jump into the pool directly from your hotel bed.
What I am planning for the rest of the year
I am literally off to a weekend in Rheinhessen, Germany’s largest wine-growing region. I have booked a Pasta & Vino wine tasting dinner hosted at Immerheiser Wein, a local winery with a separate restaurant and hotel.
This concept – wine tasting menus with accommodation at a winery or connected hotel or guesthouse – is becoming increasingly popular with a growing number of wineries joining in order to create a new, refined and exiting wine tourism.
I have assembled a fairly long list of wineries with accommodation and I am looking forward to start ticking them off. In fact, as I am writing this post, I am looking into a similar trip to the southern Palatinate wine region (the Pfalz) later this month.
I’ve also already booked a trip to Vienna in August where I will spend two nights at the Ritz Carlton. My last visit to Vienna was more than fifteen years ago (yes, I know!) and I am itching to revisit some of the most exciting places, including the Hofburg, Palace Schönbrunn (the former summer residence of the reigning Habsburg family), St. Stephan’s cathedral and of course the beautiful Prater, the city’s famous amusement park. I am also looking into dining options already. Steirereck comes to mind, still one of the city’s dining icons but there are several other options I am tempted to try as well, so the jury is still out.
This year, I also want to finally tick off the Ludwigsburg Pumpkin festival – the world’s largest pumpkin festival, believe it or not. I’ve seen so many incredible photos of the various sculptures created with pumpkins and really want to go and see for myself.
I used to live in Hamburg for several years but did not manage to visit for nearly two years. Which means, I never saw the finished Elbphilharmonie building; passing the construction site daily on my way to work for several years this is something I cannot put off for much longer. Therefore, a trip to Hamburg later in Autumn is definitely in order.
I am also planning to extend a scheduled business trip to Munich later in the year to stay a weekend there or potentially venture into the nearby Bavarian countryside.
December is the month of the famous German Christmas markets and I am planning to explore some of the smaller ones located in many small rural towns or within some of the beautiful old German castles. It’s these markets where you will find a distinctively more traditional offer of handicrafts and food and they are usually less crowded.
Finally, I will end the year with a fixture in my travelling. As in recent years, I will return to South Africa’s Western Cape. Stops along the route this time will include: the amazing Cape Winlands around Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, the Robertson Wine Valley, Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, Outshoorn in the Klein Karro semi-desert, and the two beautiful beach towns Knysna and Plettenberg on the Garden Route, and finally the Constantia Valley and Cape Town.