Top 10 Travel Experiences To Remember Forever, Part 1
When you can’t travel, what’s the next best thing you can do? For me it’s one of two things: plan the next trip, or revisit photos and memories of previous ones. Since even travel planning is a big unknown right now, reminiscing it is! I’ve loved each and every one of my trips, solo or not, challenging or easy. I’ve picked as my top 10 travel experiences those that left a strong and lasting impression – good or bad, but ones I’ll remember forever.
They may be in your country, or they may be similar to what you’ve experienced as well. Perhaps they are on your bucket list. It could be that you’ve never heard of them but are now tempted to visit. Either way, I’d love to know what you think.
Here is Part 1 of mine, in random order.
Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Athens, Greece
It all starts with the dull rhythmic thud of the drums, slow… steady… gradually building and becoming faster. Louder. The orchestra kicks in, adding to the crescendo. The electric guitars begin a face-off with the violins, and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. The dying rays of the setting sun reflect off the stone walls. The terracotta colours are mesmerising as they shimmer and fade. It is the start of two of the best hours I’ve ever experienced. Yet I can’t help but wonder what my ancestors would have thought.
Nestled at the foot of the Acropolis and overlooked by the Parthenon, the odeon is an ancient amphitheatre. It was built by Herodes Atticus in memory of his wife in 161 AD. Since then it has been destroyed, buried, and restored, and today hosts theatre and music events as part of the Athens Festival. I find it fascinating that I can sit in the same place as my ancestors sat thousands of years ago and watch a show, just as they did. It is one of my favourite places in the city where I grew up, my own back yard.
Not really one for Greek tragedies, I usually go for a concert if there is one on when I’m visiting. Last year I managed both an opera and a Queen rock symphony. It’s that Queen show, a blend of electric guitars and the Athens Symphony orchestra, that has stayed with me.
Try to get there early so you can catch the sunset; I promise it’s worth it! Keep an eye on the Athens Festival website for the 2021 programme if this is on your list.
Top tip: Don’t forget your own country!
Remember not to overlook your own country and what it can offer as one of your top travel experiences. We often see less of our own countries than we do of other destinations. Pretending to be a tourist gives you a different perspective on things you might miss when rushing about every day.
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey
I’m on a whistle-stop tour of Istanbul, passing through on my way to central Turkey for a work project. All I’ve got is an afternoon to take in the main sights and see as much as I can. With my Greek heritage, the first thing I head for is Hagia Sophia.
Initially it was an Orthodox Church when it was first built in 537, in what was then known as Constantinople. It was later converted to a Catholic church and then a mosque and finally became a museum. But in July 2020 the Turkish government decided to revoke its museum status and reclassify it as a mosque.
One of the defining features of the building is that its central dome is only supported along the edges. There are no central columns. This leaves a vast open space under the dome, so large you wonder how it is possible. On entering, I feel my breath catching. The central space is so expansive and open that I can’t help but be stopped short.
It saddens me to see the relics of its time as a mosque on the walls (when I’m here it’s still a museum). Not because I am religious, but because it’s part of what changed the course of history of my home country, Greece. Now a mosque again, history can take a new and different course.
But it won’t stop being just as breathtaking as you enter its humble wooden doors, and will remain one of my top travel experiences.
The Italian Chapel, Orkney Islands, Scotland
This was an unexpected discovery while on a business trip a long time ago, but it’s stayed with me because of its history and the sheer resourcefulness it took to build it. The Italian Chapel was constructed by a group of Italian prisoners of war during World War II.
According to Orkney.com, the POWs found themselves transported to the Orkney Islands as part of a war effort. They were there to build sea barriers along Scapa Flow, the shallow section of water that sits between the islands. Home to a naval base at the time and with a long history of strategic importance dating back to the time of the Vikings, Scapa Flow was key to the war effort. The POWs worked to help build the causeways that link the islands.
The Italians requested a place to worship within their camp and got permission to build a chapel on Lamb Holm. What they accomplished was nothing short of spectacular. With limited building materials, they created a masterpiece.
Using two Nissen huts back to back, typically used as barracks, the interior is constructed out of plasterboard and concrete. An entire chapel scene is painted on the inside, complete with brick walls, vaulted ceilings and buttresses. The exterior façade is constructed to look like a church rather than a barracks hut.
The chapel was only used for a short period of time before the POWs were released and was not fully completed until after the war.
If you’re looking for something different to the usual sights, something uplifting that will make you wonder at the strength of the human spirit, this is it.
The Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
The novelty of a tuk-tuk ride through central Phnom Penh has an edge to it. I’m heading to the Killing Fields, now a memorial site for the genocide inflicted by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s. It is one of the places where executions took place over a period of 3 years, 8 months, and 20 days. The numbers are hard to know for sure. But up to 3 million people, out of a population of 8 million, died in a massacre that took place during my lifetime.
Thankfully, it is hard to see this place as it once was. It’s remarkably peaceful, full of mature flowering trees, carpets of grass, hens scratching for food, and colourful butterflies flitting about. A small pond is at one end and a river flows beyond the fence. Here, life carries on as farmers graze their cattle along the banks and fish from their canoes.
The audio guide tells me about the horrors that took place here, but the structures they happened in have been demolished. Signs replace them, giving a brief glimpse into the history. What is still here is the location of the mass graves, victims’ bones and clothing, and around 8,000 skulls.
All the mass grave sites are clear, with only a sign marking the number of bodies found in each. But there is one with something more: a small bunch of red flowers and a tiny stuffed toy.
The experience is profoundly moving. It’s hard to comprehend how people can do this to each other. I sit motionless on a bench while I process the visit.
This may be the hardest thing I’ve seen on my travels so far, but I’m glad I came. Not one of the lightest top travel experiences, but the laughing, compassionate Cambodians that surround me on my trip remind me that it’s now part of history.
Ho Chi Minh Road, Vietnam
The Ho Chi Minh Road (not to be confused with the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia) was the secondary supply route between North and South Vietnam during the war. Running through the heart of the countryside, often close to the border with Laos, it gives you a sense of what the real Vietnam is like.
Away from the bright city lights and tourist destinations, there are few people on the Ho Chi Minh Road. I choose to do the trip with an Easy Rider – motorcyclists who strap your luggage onto the back of the bike and let you ride pillion. If you’re not a rider, it’s the next best way to experience this journey.
I spend three days riding past jungles, over mountain passes and through sleepy villages. Visit schools and communities to find a simpler way of life with little change since the war. Pay my respects at one of the war’s most brutal battle sites – Khe San – and go down into the Vinh Moc tunnels, where an entire village lived for years during the war.
The three-day trip leaves me with indelible memories of a resilient people and remarkable landscape and is one of my all-time top travel experiences. More details coming soon on the Vietnam country pages!
What did you think?
Do any of these sound familiar? Have you been to any, or want to know more about them? Get in touch if you have any questions, or post a comment below. For even more top travel experiences, look out for Part 2 coming soon.