A series of travel mishaps…
Over the past decade, I have been blessed with the opportunity to travel to several countries in Europe and further afield. Most of my solo trips abroad are characterised by some sort of mishap or misadventure and usually more than one. While irritating or frustrating at the time, these mishaps have subsequently become the most memorable part of my travel experiences and are fun stories to tell new and old friends. Sometimes these mishaps provide useful lessons for the future, but mostly they just serve as an opportunity to laugh at my own stupidity and incompetence.
The list of episodes below is far from exhaustive. I have left out several stories that might lead to problems with a number of authorities including car rental companies, car insurance companies, my bank, the Russian government and my girlfriend. Nevertheless, I hope that readers will find this an interesting guest post and may be encouraged to share their own travel mishaps too.
Leaving things behind
Lisbon, Portugal, July 2013
In the summer of 2013 I embarked on my first solo trip abroad, involving ten days in Lisbon, Portugal. During my stay I fell in love with the city. The beautiful architecture, the colourful tiles, the history of the Portuguese navigators at Belém, as well as the fairytale palaces in Sintra all which made a wonderful impression.
Around a week into my trip, I decided to check out the Solar do vinho do porto, which was recommended in my guidebook for port tasting. It goes without saying that Portugal is famous for its port, so I decided that I might as well try some for the first time. I have never been a huge drinker and it doesn’t take much to have an effect. Slightly oblivious to the alcohol content, I duly ordered three glasses. I really enjoyed the sweet taste and had a fair amount, which resulted in me feeling very dizzy and sleepy. No amount of water or cashew nuts seemed to help, I must have dozed off for awhile.
At length, after buying a bottle for about €12, I decided that I had to leave… I promptly slumped on the nearest bench and napped for a quarter of an hour. I eventually managed to stumble back to my accommodation half an hour away, with a couple of breaks sitting on the side of the road. After making it back and having a brief nap, I turned on my laptop and tried to transfer photos from my camera and phone. I rummaged in my backpack and couldn’t find them. By no means sober, I tried to think what could have happened. I concluded that someone must have stolen them when I was napping on the bench. After asking the guest house manager for advice, I headed back into the city centre to file a report at the tourist police station, which ended up taking the best part of an hour.
On my way back to the guest house, I decided I might as well go back and check the port tasting place, just in case it could have been left there. It was a long shot, but I had nothing to lose. I went inside and explained my situation. The man behind the bar asked for a description and said he’d check, but judging by the tone of his voice I didn’t expect much. Imagine my surprise when he opened the second drawer and I saw my phone and camera! I thanked him and went back to the accommodation feeling relieved. I called the police and asked them to stand down. I must have left my camera and phone on the couch where I was sitting and forgot to pick them up. I still like port, though I consume much smaller quantities!!
Berlin, Germany, September 2015
In early September 2015 I found myself in Berlin. I did not know what to expect. I imagined that as a result of war damage much of the city would be too modern for my tastes. I was happy to be proven wrong after I discovered the great museums on the Museuminsel (Museum Island), Charlottenburg Palace, as well as a day trip to Potsdam. Not to mention the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag and the Victory Column.
On my first day in Berlin, I checked into my room, dropped my things off, and headed to the Museuminsel before a 5pm tour of the Reichstag (Bundestag) building. Before I left I wondered if I should take my passport with me. I eventually decided to do so since I thought I might need the ID for the Reichstag tour. I had a great time visiting the Altes Museum and the Pergamon Museum, then proceeded along the beautiful Unter den Linden en route to the Reichstag.
I checked my bag and my pockets for my passport, to my horror I could not find it. Losing your passport abroad is a massive pain in any situation, but I was planning to fly to Moscow later in the week to spend a month in Russia. Perhaps influenced by how I found my camera and phone in Lisbon, I decided I would go back to the museums and see if I could find anything. After wandering around for a while and having no luck, I decided once again to head to the Reichstag.
During the Reichstag tour it began to rain very heavily so I took the U-bahn back to my accommodation, hoping against hope that my passport was in the room. When I opened the door, I saw my passport lying on the coffee table by the door. Evidently I had been distracted by something before heading out, put the passport on the table and forgot to pick it up when I left in the morning.
Valga, Estonia, April 2015
I did a lot of travelling in 2015, which was my final year of university. In fact, I later worked out that I spent more than 70 days out of the UK over the course of the year. In late March, I joined the LSE International Relations Club to visit Kyiv and Warsaw, meeting a host of ambassadors and politicians to learn about the crisis in Ukraine. I planned at the end of the trip to visit all three Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. As someone who has studied the history of the Russian empire, I was always interested in visiting the Baltics. In particular I was intending to visit the Mausoleum of Field Marshal Mikhail Barclay de Tolly, my favourite historical figure in southern Estonia.
Despite bad weather and rain every day I enjoyed Vilnius, especially Riga. A beautiful city which reminded me of both Amsterdam and St Petersburg. I then proceeded to the city of Valga in southern Estonia, some 30 miles from the Barclay de Tolly Mausoleum. Valga itself is a very interesting place, as the Estonian-Latvian border runs across the city, which is known as Valka on the Latvian side. The city’s motto is ‘one city, two states’, now that both countries are part of the Schengen area there are no border crossings like there used to be during the Soviet era.
It was only when I arrived in Valga on the evening of Thursday 2 April that I realised, not being particularly religious that the following day was Good Friday. When I went out the following day, I found that almost everything was closed. Even the tourist information opened late. When I asked them whether the mausoleum was open, they didn’t know. Since I made it all this way primarily to see the mausoleum, I decided to take a chance just in case.
I got to the bus station but as the bus failed to materialise, I opted for a taxi instead. While the driver didn’t speak English, we managed to have a conversation in Russian. He told me that when he visited the mausoleum as a child on a school trip, Barclay’s coffin was open and his embalmed body was on display. I had never come across any photos or any historical evidence for this, but I was very intrigued. After half an hour or so we got to the mausoleum. As I expected, it was not open so all I could do was take a few pictures, walk around a couple of times and head back.
This was a massive disappointment, although I was glad to have an interesting conversation with the taxi driver. I vowed to return and I eventually made my way inside a couple years later, although that didn’t go entirely smoothly either.
Granada, Spain, August 2017
In July-August 2017 my mother and I, together with several relatives from China, went on a three week trip across five countries (Austria, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal). After three days in Madrid, our next stop was Granada. The main motivation for visiting Granada was to see the Alhambra. Unfortunately, I did not realise how quickly tickets sell out and when I tried to book a month in advance, but there were no tickets left! I searched online for a solution, to discover that there were a limited number of tickets available every day. Although the advice was to get there early. Very early…
We took a taxi to the Alhambra at 5am. By the time we arrived, there were already perhaps a hundred people waiting in line, while the moon was still shining brightly in the sky. After waiting a few hours, the ticket office finally opened and we were able to purchase our tickets without too much difficulty. Despite the incredibly early start, it was absolutely worth it. From the gorgeous gardens of the Generalife, to the Moorish magnificence of the Nasrid Palace and the austere fortress of the Alcazaba. The Alhambra definitely deserves it’s reputation. But next time, a reservation would be useful!
Lack of familiarity with rental car
Sofia, Bulgaria, December 2016
In December 2016, while studying for my Master’s degree in Cambridge, I decided to book a list minute trip to Sofia just before Christmas. After seeing how cheap car rental was, I booked a car hire for three days intending to visit the Rila Monastery, Plovdiv and Veliko Tarnovo. This was the first time I had hired a car and also the first time I was driving on the right hand side of the road…
All this needed getting used to, but this wasn’t the major concern. I had hired a Volkswagen Polo and the gear stick indicated that first and reverse gear were in the same position. I was confused but was sure I could work it out. I drove to the National History Museum, the first stop on my itinerary and parked the car. I tried to engage reverse in the car park, but no matter what I tried I was always in first. I wondered if there was a button I had to press somewhere, but couldn’t see anything. I decided I would go to the museum and hope to find Wifi (this was before free roaming in the EU). Although reception was patchy, I did manage to do a Google search, where I discovered I had to depress the gear lever in order to engage reverse. Needless to say on the subsequent occasions I have hired a car, I have made sure to check I knew how to move it backwards as well as forwards!
Shipka, Bulgaria, December 2016
Another episode from my trip to Bulgaria. I started the third day of my road trip in Plovdiv, heading to Veliko Tarnovo via the Shipka Pass and the Monument to the Battle of Shipka, the decisive Russian victory in the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-78, which was a significant step in the road to Bulgarian independence. The Shipka Pass is considered a difficult and dangerous drive, but while there were several hairpin bends I did not find it too much of a problem.
The difficulty came when I reached the bottom of the steps leading up to the Shipka Monument. There are 900 steps to the foot of the monument, a challenge in normal times, but especially in December when half the steps were covered in snow. Or should I say ice. After a few flights I began to slip more frequently. Never one to give up, I had to resort to crawling up on all fours, or climbing up the hillside where there was fresh (albeit deep) snow. I eventually made it up and while the tower was unsurprisingly closed to visitors there was a wonderful view of the surrounding mountains. It was also ridiculously windy so I didn’t stay for long. On the way down I tried to avoid the stairs and walked down the hillside. With more than a little help from gravity, I made it down far quicker than going up!
Connemara, Ireland, October 2019
By 2019, I had visited more than half of the 47 countries in Europe, but I had never made the short trip across the Irish Sea to Ireland. I addressed this oversight by booking a five day roadtrip to Ireland for October 2019. Like most of my trips, I was very ambitious in my plans (Dublin-Kilkenny-Cashel-Cork-Killarney-Ring of Kerry-Tralee-Galway-Clifden-Dublin) and did not manage to see everything I intended, but I was very impressed by all the history and natural beauty that the Emerald Isle had to offer.
On the penultimate day of my trip, I started at Ballyseede Castle near Tralee (where I spent the night) and had to get to Clifden in County Galway by the end of the day. The drive alone would take more than four hours. En route, I was intending to climb Diamond Hill in the Connemara National Park, which promised breathtaking views of the surrounding area.
Most sources on the Internet suggested a 2.5 hour to 3 hour round trip, though I did see some saying 1.5 hours were enough. I had planned for 2.5 hours, but I lost an hour or so en route (including being stuck in traffic in Galway). By the time I arrived, it was 45 minutes to sunset. I figured that I could climb up within an hour, admire the sunset and there would still be enough light for me to make my way down.
My intentions proved as always a bit too ambitious. An hour in, I had not yet reached the summit. I was probably the last one up that day, but I could see a group of young men ahead of me. If I didn’t linger too long, at least I wouldn’t be alone. But once I got to the summit, I had to spend a while taking it all and taking some photos and had a brief rest. Surely the descent wouldn’t be tricky and the light would hold.
By the time I started the descent, I lost sight of the people ahead. Worse still, as I was climbing down on the rear slope, within 10 minutes it was almost completely dark. I had to turn on the light on my phone, which was rapidly running out of battery at less than 20%. Thankfully, after stumbling a little and stepping into the bog more than once. I caught up with the group ahead of me, asking if I could hang around and share their light. They were a friendly group of Irish guys from different parts of the country. We completed the hike together in about half an hour, relieved to get back to the car park. It took slightly less than 2.5 hours to make the round trip, which is of course what I should have expected. Still there wasn’t much to regret. I enjoyed the view from the top and made it back down in one piece. I have been aware for several years that my travel plans are too ambitious and I should take things easier, but I never do and I don’t expect to any time soon…!!
This guest post was written by Jimmy Chen, a communications consultant and avid traveller. Who enjoys learning about history and culture on his travels across Europe. He also runs Napoleonic Impressions, an online store selling a range of unique products and designs inspired by the Napoleonic era. We connected with Jimmy through his love of travel and with a lovely recommendation from Kara DiDomizio.
I hope you enjoyed Jimmy’s post as much as we did! Follow him @
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