Room with a view

When we pulled open the curtains at Apartamentos el Cano, Marina d’Or, Oropesa del Mar, Spain, we were greeted by the Mediterranean sea view that would delight us from dawn to dusk every day of our week’s stay. Like an ever-changing oil painting, the palette altering with the moods of the light and weather, I had to hold myself back from taking endless photos of the same scene.

With this enormous holiday resort complex almost empty (due to the global pandemic and consequent travel restrictions… the same reason we weren’t tempted to do our usual galivanting 200kms in every direction) we spent our days simply: long walks along the beach and promenade, daily excursions for food and supplies, or the occasional trip into Oropesa town centre.

It was almost a private paradise, just joggers or dog-walkers passing us from time to time. In fact we were surprised when we saw any group of more than 2 people, other than in the town centre or at the supermarket. It did feel a little post-apocalyptic, but we got used to the quiet, deserted streets and silent amusement parks – whose fading paintwork added to the long-forgotten feeling.

But we were both content to take a pause and just “hang” to enjoy the beachfront location and sunshine. (Although those Spanish sausage-shaped pillows took some getting used to.)

The fenced park and gardens, which we overlooked from our balcony, was closed for maintenance and became a veritable bird sanctuary.

Mosaics adorning on the many benches were fabulous.

Indeterminate citrus fruit trees lined the streets, reminding us that we were on the Orange Blossom Coast.

The short winter days of January allowed us enjoy many a sunrise and sunset.

And even as the weather changed, it was still a beautiful spot.

I do wonder how a place like this, in a town of just 9,000 residents, which must rely so heavily on housing its usual 100,000 tourists, can possibly survive this COVID-19 tourism disaster?

The complex is now closed till April. We are just thankful that we had to opportunity to visit when we did.

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From coast to coast

Continuing from my last post, the next day, as we drove out of San Sebastian, Spain, I noticed ice on the sides of the road… and before we knew it, we were driving through snow! Well, not literally (lucky for us the snow ploughs were already doing their thing) but we were soon left gasping in surprise and wonder at the snow-covered mountain-scape we were navigating.

It wasn’t long before we reached Pamplona, which proved to be a large modern city, leaving us puzzled as to where they hold the running-of-the-bulls; but with parking surprisingly difficult to find we didn’t stop to find out.

For our official break on our 6hour/600km journey from the Atlantic coast of Spain across to the Mediterranean coast, we visited the magnificent mediaeval Royal Palace of Olite (Palacio Real): truly magical. We wished we’d had more time to explore every corner of this beautiful castle, and every intriguing alleyway of its historic town. But we still had a long way to go yet, so some fresh bread from a cute little hole-in-the-wall bakery to make our picnic lunch (eaten in the warmth of the car!) and we were off again.

There was certainly no rain on the plains of Spain this day – and we thought we had left the snow well behind us, until we missed a crucial turnoff and ended up crossing the Maestrat mountain region where the outside temperature dropped to below zero again, in a landscape dusted with snow. We were surprised to pass Morella’s 18th century fortress atop the Rock of La Mola (which we had visited on a previous trip, sparking some reminiscing) followed by the hairy descent (where massive works are underway to eliminate some of those dangerous hairpin bends).

As darkness fell, we got totally bamboozled (and vowed to update our GPS maps at the first opportunity… or was it our settings?) as we nervously navigated our way through the narrowing roads of a nature park, before thankfully joining back up with a main road for the final stretch. It all turned out to be quite an adventure!

Spanish sunset

It was with great relief that we arrived El Cano apartments, Oropesa del Mar, before the scheduled reception closing time… only to find the office permanently closed, thanks to COVID.

A few anxious phone calls later, two security guards arrived and, despite my only Spanish being: no hablo español, and some computer glitch which left our names off their check-in list (perhaps the millennium bug hit 20 years late?), we were soon tucked up in our comfortable high-rise apartment, more than ready for a good night’s sleep.

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Hola from Nola!

It is said that, what you do on the first day of the year sets the tone for the rest of the year – so, despite a global pandemic, and widespread weather warnings, we set off at 8am on 1 January 2021 to spend two weeks in Spain!

Escaping the depths of winter for the warmer climate of Spain sounded like a fabulous idea – and permitted for us Aussies, even during COVID-19, as long as we had accommodation reservations in hand.

So, keeping one eye on the ever-changing pandemic situation, and the other on the fickle weather warnings (especially the flood zone we would be skirting around), we drove the 6 hour/600kms to San Sebastian, Spain – choosing that route mainly to avoid the predicted snow and avalanches predicted across the Pyrenees.

As we headed south we were surprised to see the outside temperature drop below zero, and driving through thick fog as the sun rose was a little worrisome, but really beautiful at the same time.

Looking for somewhere interesting to stop and stretch our legs, without deviating from our route, we settled on Barbezieux-Saint-Hilaire where we passed by the 11th century St. Mathias church, meandered through the old town area and stumbled on the 15th century castle. And of course, the obligatory visit to the local patisserie. Perfect for a quick COVID-safe visit.

With a sigh of relief that we encountered no flood waters, at our next stop: Biarritz, on the Basque coast of France, the wild weather kept us on high ground. We had just enough of a look around (before we felt we might be blown away, and scrambled back to the safety and warmth of the car) to know that we would love to visit this beach again one day… in summer! But this show of nature’s strength was definitely invigorating!

We quietly slipped over the border into Spain without incident, and arrived in the huge city of San Sebastian, which took me by surprise – I don’t know why I was expecting a sleepy little seaside town!

But unfamiliar big cities are always difficult to navigate, so we had a bit of an unguided tour, navigating one-way streets, lined with gorgeous architecture, before finally locating our hotel: NH Collection Aranzazu (with “Aranzazu” being the key word, we finally discovered).

After a very-COVID-conscious check-in (where even our passports got disinfected) we settled into our pristine room, freshened up and went for a walk before dark. Any thoughts of a sumptuous meal out in this city known for its gastronomy were dashed due to the newly introduced closing time of 6pm for restaurants, and so we satisfied ourselves with a walk down to the closest beach: Playa de Onderreta, for fantastic views of what appears to be 2 islands in the La Concha bay, but in reality was just one (Isla de Santa Clara) with the mainland curving back in around the bay.

The decorative white-painted wrought-iron fence along the promenade added to the beauty of the scene as we watched the waves rolling in…

before finally tearing ourselves away for a makeshift dinner of snacks back in our room, which felt like a party, and a fitting celebration of our arrival in Spain.

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Job done

When the world changed due to COVID-19, we didn’t know when we would be able to travel again. Movement even within Australia was restricted, and the country’s borders closed.

But then we received news (and pictures) of water damage to the ceiling in one of our bedrooms in our house in Argenton-sur-Creuse, France, and voilà, on that basis, we were granted permission to leave Australia, and temporarily relocate to France.

In the weeks preceding our departure, we “virtually” attended my daughter’s wedding online (couldn’t even cross the border into the next state at that time) but were able to attend two family funerals closer to home, at least allowing us the opportunity to see some relatives before our departure. A very bittersweet period of time.

Having ended our lease and packed up our apartment, thrown everything into storage, and armed with our negative COVID tests, we were glad to finally collapse into the half-empty plane. At least I could stretch out and sleep for most of two flights (masked up except to eat). And to err on the side of caution, we took a private car from CDG to the regional train station.

By the time we arrived at our house in Argenton-sur-Creuse, we took some time to regain our equilibrium before tackling the ceiling problem, and enjoyed exploring the changes around town – especially excited by the newly restored medieval houses overhanging the river. The rooves of some now in pristine condition, and freshly painted in a riot of colour.

Once Tony identified a cracked skylight, that was fixed in an afternoon (ahead of predicted heavy rain) and after experiencing no ill effects after the downpour, and inspecting the roof by drone, we were satisfied that was the sole cause, and could set about repairing the ceiling. First, the messy job of prising off the plaster from the lathe (wooden strappings), letting the ceiling cavity completely dry out, before cutting a neat rectangle to fill with plasterboard we had left over from previous renovations. A number of days were needed to build up the plaster to fill the banded joints. Then the sanding, before applying primer to eradicate all the remaining stains, and finally painting. Job done: good as new. Great teamwork, and that familiar pride of renovating washed over us.

But one job often leads to another, and having already moved the wardrobe out of that corner of the room I suggested we go ahead and do a bit of a juggle – leaving that wardrobe in the 2nd bedroom downstairs, bringing down the pretty little vestiaire that had been hidden away in our walk-in robe upstairs, and building in the “dressing” I had always wanted up there to make the best use of the space.

No sooner said than done! Off to the hardware store to pick up the built-in wardrobe kit that best fit our rather odd-shaped area, a few adjustments and personalisations – cleverly incorporating a set of drawers we already had – and ta-da! Another job done!

And all in time to welcome some houseguests for Christmas!

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As luck would have it

This photo of Luxembourg Gardens, Paris, was featured in my blog post, just before I started walking you through my photobook through my posts, back in December 2019.

As if I knew that 2020 was going to be somewhat of a different year for all of us, I began sharing the photos I chose to capture in print, reliving my lifetime of travel through them (and adding in a few more along the way).

Who knew that our amazing Greek Islands trip last year would be a swansong in the freedom of world leisure travel while we all waited for the world pandemic to subside?

Even flitting up to the Loire Valley for our hot air balloon ride last year, and to visit to Chateau de Chambord from our base in central France is something that is still not possible in these days of COVID-19 restrictions.

Marooned in Australia earlier this year, having to cancel our grand plans to drive around the UK, we didn’t know when we would ever get back to Europe to see our beloved Argenton-sur-Creuse again.

But life has a funny way of working out, even in the worst of situations, and we gained permission from the Australian government to temporarily relocate to France for a minimum of 3 months to attend to maintenance on our house.

Ironically, we departed Melbourne, Australia, on the very day their lockdown restrictions were lifted, and arrived in Paris the day before France’s second confinement began.

But we’re not complaining. Not at all. We had each other, and plenty of jobs to do at home. The 1 hour limit per day to walk a 1km radius from our house still afforded us an abundance of scenery; and when that was eased to 20km and 3 hours we felt like we were under no restrictions at all.

And now that confinement restrictions have been lifted in France for the Christmas season (save for a nightly curfew, with cultural venues still closed and bars and restaurants remaining takeaway only), we can toy with the idea of travelling further afield…

We count ourselves very lucky.

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The perfect mix

Our perfect travelling scenario is a mixture of:

  1. Seeing firsthand places we’ve always longed to visit
  2. Securing a week of timeshare and using it as our exploration base
  3. Checking out someone else’s recommendation
  4. Feeling like we’ve discovered somewhere totally unheard of
  5. Getting lost and finding something wonderful

Our Greek Islands experience in 2019 was all that:

  1. Visiting some of the most popular Greek islands on our 7 day cruise: Santorini, Mykonos, Crete.
  2. Booking a week of timeshare on Paros even though we knew nothing of the island – and finding it was perfect!
  3. Ferrying across to the largest of the Cyclades islands, Naxos, on a heartfelt recommendation from family and being able to compare experiences.
  4. Stumbling upon hidden gems – like the tucked-away 10th century church Agii Apóstoli on our Naxos hike.
  5. Getting lost on a regular basis, especially on Antiparos – not well-mapped by Google – but loving wherever we ended up!

Yes, all that, and more…

It was funny that, even though we could see Naxos from “our” side of Paros, in Drios, we had to drive to the other side of the island, to catch the ferry from Parikia port – giving us another chance to take in those fabulous views. (Curiously, on-the-spot ferry ticket prices were cheaper at the port than on the internet the night before.)

On arrival, we made our way across the causeway of Naxos to the islet of Palatia, where the huge marble Apollo’s Gate (or Portata) still stands proudly amidst the temple ruins. Then back to the main island to walk along the harbourside tavernas, venturing up and beyond into the old town of cobblestoned alleyways, and finally back to the port area to buy our tickets at the “Naxos Bus Transfer” office in perfect time to catch the 12 noon minibus up to Filoti.

We fuelled ourselves on crepes and waffles at “Cappaccinos” in the pretty mountain village of Filoti (actually made up of 3 settlements) before our hike down to Chalki, enjoying fantastic views from our window-side table.

Armed with what we thought were clear directions to the hiking trail we still got ourselves muddled, crisscrossing and backtracking our way – finally connecting with the No. 3 track before coming upon a herd of goats and getting more bamboozled when the path seemed to splay out in a number of directions which all petered out to nothing. But we were very excited to “discover” the Byzantine Agii Apóstoli (as if for the first time) which made it all worthwhile.

When we eventually arrived at Chalki (aka Halki), we were delighted, and enjoyed exploring its enticing alleyways for a time.

Readying ourselves to catch the bus back down the mountain we discovered where the No 3 hiking trail came out, but even following it from this end, we still couldn’t work out which way the path went! Ah well, it all adds to the adventure. Catching the last bus back to Naxos city at 4.30pm, we enjoyed the passing scenery, and tried to identify which peak was Mt Zeus (or Zas) – the highest point in the Cyclades.

A drink at the colourful and aptly named “Relax” cafe with a view of Apollo’s Gate was a perfect ending to this great day, and the large ferry to Paros made us feel like we were back on the cruise ship, where we started this incredible trip.

Taking the car on the little shuttle ferry at Pounda (just a 10 min trip), we drove onto the tiny 5km² island of Antiparos, circumnavigating it at least twice during this day trip, reveling in the endless coastal views.

We drove up to top of the hill of Agios loannis to visit the island’s No. 1 attraction – The Cave of Antiparos – walking down the 411 steep steps (but who’s counting?), descending into the 3 “chambers” of this vertical, waterless cave, admiring the stalactites and stalagmites, some adorned by the ancient graffiti of long-ago visitors.

After the long trek back up, and happy to breathe in the fresh air, we took our time to admire the spectacular views from this vantage point, before meandering our way via who-knows-where, including the highest peak, St. Elias; passing windmills, little blue domed churches, vineyards, and secluded coves. We had a giggle when someone thought they recognised Tony as a local (his Greek heritage obvious). Then finished the day off with a wander round the quiet port town of Chora (where we were surprised to see signs for legal cannabis!)

Checking out of Anezina Village was amusing, when we wanted to pay our tab by credit card and were told “You pay my sister” and were directed to the neighboring mini-market. That’s what you call a close-knit community!

Sad to be saying goodbye to Paros, we were glad that this wasn’t quite the end of our Greek Islands travel. We had one more night in Mykonos to catch a flight out the following day, and stayed at Eternal Apartments – with their distinctive muralled bathroom – situated high up above the city and away from the noisy nightlife. We navigated the steep descent to discover some pockets of the city we hadn’t seen on our day-visit on the cruise, but found ourselves drawn back to the picturesque Little Venice area. (But not before stopping for a delicious gyros at Jimmy’s, a well-known little hole-in-the-wall kebab place – tasty, spicy and surprisingly light. Yum.)

All too soon, the sun set on our totally relaxing, truly unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime 2-week discovery tour of the Greek Islands.

Sunset Mykonos
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Our Paros paradise

After a lovely week cruising the Greek Islands in 2019, we jumped in a taxi to head from Piraeus Port across to the east coast of Greece, to Rafina Port where our ferry would depart, to continue our islands experience with a week on Paros, an island of less than 200 square kms located in the middle of the Cyclades.

Rafina is not a tourist hotspot by any means, but even on a sleepy Sunday morning there were cafes and restaurants open, and we had glorious weather to boot. So, with plenty of time to kill, we stowed our luggage, hung out at a hip beach bar, discovered the pretty Agios Nikolas Chapel overlooking the Aegean Sea, and enjoyed a delicious lunch at Cafe La Sera, before joining the throng awaiting the ferry’s arrival… and waited. And waited. Ah, gotta love Greek time.

It seemed strange to enter and exit through the bowels of the ferry via the car ramp – and leave luggage there, unattended. Thankfully it was still there when we disembarked!

The sun was setting by the time we arrived on Paros and collected our hire car for ease of exploring this island (though it seemed that pre-booking the car was unnecessary, with a dozen car renters snapping at us like hungry seagulls at Parikia port – and there are regular buses available too).

We were staying on the quieter side of the island at Anezina Village, Drios (booked through timeshare), a scenic 30 minute drive in either direction from Parikia.

Our villa was adorable, and the resort was in walking distance of cafes, a little supermarket, ATM, and beaches. What more could you want?

How about a Greek night? With a huge buffet of traditional Greek dishes, wine, (and ouzo for those who like that stuff), and with live music and dancing, it was certainly lots of fun.

We often walked to Yiasou café in the mornings for a coffee, before settling back at our villa for breakfast on one of our private terraces, overlooking the olive grove with sea views in the distance. (I must mention the Naxos yogurt we bought, which has the texture of Italian meringue! Heavenly.)

Drios, Paros, Greece

A special day out was to Lefkes – a charming quiet mountain village of winding stairs and alleyways, where we walked the Byzantine Path and visited its crowning glory: the Church of Agia Triada, built in 1835 from local marble. Such a pretty spot, we stopped there for a delightful Courgette Pie (aka Zucchini slice) served with homemade tzitziki at Cafe Marigo. Just perfect, along with my Mountain tea, ahh. Then a gift of fresh apricots from their tree! But, oh dear, their EFTPOS was down, and we only had a couple of euros between us! With no ATMs in town, the owner simply gave us a stamped envelope to post him back the 10 euros – a trusting gesture which just added to our positive experience of Lefkes.

Lefkes, Paros, Greece

Beach-hopping our way around the island, we found a small sandy beach at Ambelas, before making a detour via the Tower of Hellenistic Period… well, what little was left of it! Called in at the bustling fishing village of Naoussa, its harbour lined with eateries. Santa Maria is an out-of-the-way topless beach, Parasporos offered great views before descending to its “famous” beach, and the beach café at Aliki looked inviting.

At Golden Beach – by far the biggest beach – you can rent private sunbeds and umbrellas – rather idyllic really, looking directly out at that tiny island… the stuff dreams are made of.

But we still preferred our secluded little beach at Drios, where we fulfilled a bucket list wish to snorkel in the Greek Islands. The sea was very cool, but we quickly adjusted, and the water was deep, with enough rocks and fishes to be interesting. Tony even spotted an octopus, as he attempted to multitask with a little underwater detecting.

There’s nothing like an island holiday for get-away-from-it-all fun in the sun. And we didn’t want it to end.

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Cruising the Greek Islands

As if cruising the Greek Islands in June 2019 wasn’t exciting enough, we booked an introductory scuba diving lesson for our day on Crete, and we were excited to see a school of dolphins greeting us as we sailed towards port.

The drive from the ship to Omega Divers for our theory lessons, and then onto the secluded cove, gave us a glimpse of some of this huge island (the largest by far of the thousands of Greek Islands): very scenic with all the flowers in bloom, the White Mountains dominating the horizon against a cloudless sky, and the brilliant colours of the sea below.

It was great to have 1-on-1 instructors, and Tony was a natural, but I found putting theory into practice a little challenging with so much to remember, and struggled with the 20kg tank constantly trying to flip me over like a stranded turtle, finally deciding to simply ignore the water collecting in my mask and give myself over to enjoying the underwater experience. (At least my meditation practice made the controlled breathing a breeze, and I even held a sea urchin in my hand.)

That still left us the whole afternoon to explore the historic city of Chania on foot (pronounced Han-ya), hopping on a bus from the cruise port (the Red line conveniently running every 10 or so minutes between port and city).

The large covered municipal market is almost opposite the bus stop in town so we started our exploration there (always loving the atmosphere of a market), before heading towards the old town: through cobblestoned streets and alleyways full of old-world charm, lined with countless tiny stores and cafes, and down to the Old Venetian Harbour – not referencing the city of Venice as such, though very picturesque with pretty coloured buildings lining the port, but rather, referring to the 400 year occupation of the Venetians of this island from the 13th century, when Crete was known as the Kingdom of Candia.

Old Venetian Harbour, Chania, Crete

Breakfast on deck of the Pullmantur Horizon cruise ship the next morning, with a view of the famous 16th century windmills of Mykonos in the distance, with whitewashed square houses cascading down the hill was just perfect. With no tour booked, we were in no mad rush and patiently waited (at the bar) for our tender to the island.

Once on land, it was an easy walk from the Old Port of Chora (aka Hora or Mykonos Town), right around the coastline, via the cluster of small 17th century churches Panagia Paraportiani; enjoying a leisurely stop in Little Venice (so-called for the houses jutting over the water’s edge) for some refreshments and a view of those iconic windmills (aka Kato Mili); before getting up-close-and-personal with them for more (almost obligatory) photo opportunities. Then we wound our way through back alleyways to the port. It was all so idyllic – the water a gorgeous turquoise, the sky so blue, and the glorious weather holding, until the moment we stepped back on board, when clouds rolled in right behind us – a real testament to the fickle weather of these beautiful islands, making us feel all the more blessed for this fabulous day.

Paraportiani, Mykonos
Little Venice, Mykonos

Alas, Mykonos was our last island stop on this cruise, and the ship sailed us back towards Athens overnight.

But our Greek islands adventure was far from over, and it wasn’t the last we saw of Mykonos either!

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Dreams do come true

I had wanted to cruise the Greek Islands ever since I was a teenager, and last year that dream came true!

Cutting it fine, flying in from Australia into Athens, Greece, on the afternoon of boarding, we had booked a private transfer to save stress (but with 2 nights docked at Piraeus port we figured we would be ok, despite the agent’s warnings). And it all turned out totally hassle-free.

A smaller ship than our previous 2 cruises, the Pullmantur “Horizon” looked a little tired, but was perfectly adequate. Daily gym visits kept the kilos at bay – especially with the integrated drinks package. The energy of the nightly theatre performances, and the quality of live bar music, outshone our (limited) experience of on-ship entertainment. It was certainly an international experience – sailing the Greek Islands on a Spanish-speaking ship!

For our day in Athens, we pre-purchased an Athens Mini Pass for both the “get on, get off” tourist bus, and entry to the new Acropolis Museum, dedicated to archaeological finds from the Sacred Rock and foothills. (Travel tips: the bus stop was to the left of the port, across the road next to the kiosk, and the pass voucher had to be converted to a ticket at the Acropolis stop.)

A highlight was sitting on the large terrace behind the Acropolis museum eating Baklava against the backdrop of the Acropolis and Parthenon above. And it was fun to try find the same restaurant in Plaka where we had dined 9 years earlier – epic fail though: it was all Greek to us! Back at the Acropolis stop at the end of the day, we took a random walk while waiting for the next bus – up and around in adjacent parkland – and stumbled upon a fabulous view of Acropolis Hill. A fitting farewell.

Then the cruise itself – first stop: Santorini: the “goddess of the Aegean Sea”, where small tenders transferred us towards the surprising 300m high Caldera cliffs; the whitewashed houses of Fira (aka Thira) looking like snow on a mountaintop.

By the time we reached land, the queues for the cable-car were enormous and we had an appointment to collect a motor scooter for the day, so we skipped the line, hustled past the donkeys, and zig-zagged our way uphill on foot, drinking in the stunning views of the bay when we needed to take a break.

Then scooted off (literally) north, to the quieter town of Oia (pronounced ee-ya), for even more spectacular views (where the most famous blue-domed churches are).

By taking an inland route to circle back to Fira, we discovered a completely different view of the island, and still had time to explore Fira before it was time to take the easy way back down to sea-level by cable-car.

Next stop: Marmaris, a tourist port city on the Mediterranean cost of southwest Turkey. It was exciting to touch foot in a new country on this 7 night cruise.

And Marmaris was marvellous! An amazing marina, beautiful sandy beach with paved promenade, cute winding alleys, whitewashed houses, a castle and museum, and an undercover Grand Bazaar (if we had understood the incredible exchange rate we might have done some serious shopping – perhaps it’s best we didn’t!)

After all that excitement, a welcome day at sea, to simply kick back and enjoy the cruise experience…

…before the next round of island adventures!

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Seize the day

Last year we fulfilled a number of bucket list wishes: sky diving with my son, cruising the Greek Islands, scuba diving in Crete, and taking a hot air balloon ride over the Loire Valley in France!

All totally amazing experiences.

At the time I thought that it was a bit excessive to fit all that into one year (despite a milestone birthday and wedding anniversary to celebrate), but now, with COVID-19 causing total disruption to our plans for 2020, it’s great to look back on what we achieved in 2019.

And here are some photos preserved in my photobook:

Cruising the Greek Islands
Heading to a secluded cove on Crete for our scuba diving
Sunrise hot air balloon ride over the Loire Valley

The moral of the story is to do everything you desire, as soon as you get the opportunity, because you never know whether you will have the chance again.

Carpe diem – seize the day.

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