Under blue skies and over brown earth, crooked trees rise up from a sandy hilltop somewhere deep within the Andalusian region. This southern part of Spain is wild and hilly, rough and desolate. Yet, it has its own type of rugged beauty. Small Pueblos Blancos (White Villages) dot the hills, ancient farms climb the steep hillsides, windy roads wrap themselves around the mountains, narrow streams wiggle through the sands, scraggly trees push up through the dry earth–and over all, the bright Spanish sun shines down over her beautiful realm. Once you arrive in a place like Andalusia, you never want to leave!
Snow falls softly on this silent, barren town. The chilly air has driven most of the locals inside and kept most the tourists away. What’s special about this place is that this little town straddles both Eastern and Western Europe. Warsaw is the political and economic centre, Krakow, the cultural capital, and Gdansk, the gateway to the Baltics. While many imagine these places as the dark and somber Eastern Europe, little by little they are becoming more and more modern, upscale, and integrated with the western half of the continent. Lublin, however, feels exactly what you’d imagine from an Eastern European town, right down to the little houses, market squares, and light snowfall. Walk its small streets, feel the snow land on your head, and duck into a local establishment for pierogies and beer!
Travel and weather have a tricky relationship. The power of weather is so strong that it often has the ability to make or break a trip, to render your day magical or miserable depending on its mood. Imagine you are walking along the same cobblestoned street that Mozart once lived on, and it started to rain. Wait, no, not it’s not raining, but hailing. One minute it’s bright and sunny, and the next minute, little droplets of frozen rain have begun falling from the sky, obscuring the view of the beautiful Hohensalzburg Castle and attacking you as you scurry for shelter. You, as the tourist, can take this in one of two ways. On one hand, you can get angry and feel cheated out of a beautiful, magical day in the famous Austrian city. But on the other hand, you can take the experience at face value and enjoy it for what it is: a memorable, crazy afternoon dodging balls of cascading ice in the shadow of Salzburg’s beautiful schloss. Sometimes the weather doesn’t match up with the image you have in your mind–but does that make it any less magical? I think not.
Riga, along with the rest of the Baltics, are surely one of the most beautiful and interesting places you’ll visit. The people in the Baltics are not only friendly, fun and adventurous, but they are strong, brave, resilient, and when they put their minds together, there is no stopping them. On August 23, 1989, they proved exactly that. Roughly 2 million people took to the streets, grasped each others’ hands, and formed a human chain that linked the three Baltic capitals: Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. For over 675.5 km (419.7 miles), the Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians stood hand in hand, briefly becoming one identity to show the intense solidarity that existed–and still exists!–between the three states. It was designed to show the world their united desire for independence as well as the illegal occupation of the USSR, and even though Moscow tried to retaliate, only a few months later, Lithuania was a free state. Latvia and Estonia followed not long after. Can you imagine a chain of human beings that stretched across three countries, for almost 700 km? Can you imagine the effort, the initiative, the planning, the teamwork that the Baltic Way took? How about the feel of another person’s hand in yours, grasping it as if your life depended on it? Can you feel the shivers go up and down your spine? The Baltic solidarity and determination is an amazing feat. It is a beautiful thing. It is what happens when three nations work together in a peaceful protest to accomplish a common goal. If that isn’t a reason to visit, I don’t know what is.
Spain is old. You won’t get far in Spain without stumbling upon a castle, a manor house, an old church, a crumbling ruin, a stonewall. Villages like Isla are not uncommon, but this makes them no less beautiful. Leaving behind any major Spanish city and setting out into the countryside is always an adventure, and it nearly always yields beautiful results. This manor house, private and closed to the public, is a good representation of the type of houses that once housed the ruling classes in the countryside. The neighbouring village, Isla, is a quaint place comprised of little shops and restaurants, pretty houses, an attractive stone church and a picturesque castle tower overlooking all at the top of the hill. The orange roofs and crumbling stone buildings swim in a sea of golden countryside and blue skies. Just down the hill, one leaves the Middle Ages behind for the modern era and the beach. While not as famous as its neighbour, Playa Noja, a beach known for its surfing (as well as its proximity to a maximum security prison, a fact that is oddly fascinating), Playa del Sable is still a great place to kick back and relax with sun, sand and a glass of Spanish sangria!