03 January 2022

Five Travel Stories from 2021

For the second year running, rather than picking my top five leaps of the year, I've picked five stories that sum up my travel highlights of the year. It has, of course, been a year with very little foreign travel. It's also the first year in 15 years where I haven't been to New York a single time. I miss the city so much and can't wait to return. But I'm grateful that I was able to travel to one new country (Malta) and one new European city (Porto), as well as taking short trips to Edinburgh and Canterbury. I've also spent time with family in Oxford and Walsall, and spent a little more time in Birmingham, usually on the way to Wolves matches. My motto for the second half of the year was carpe diem — if a trip or event was possible, I would try to do it as soon as I could, before the situation changed again.

1. Leaping into Malta's Blue Lagoon
Like many people, I had to cancel a lot of travel plans last year, including seven international trips, as well as a few more within the UK. As such, I couldn't quite believe that I was finally able to leave the country for the first time in 18 months until I arrived at Luqa International Airport in Malta in September. I spent nine gloriously sunny days in Malta, including a city break in Valletta, and a stay on the island of Gozo. Malta is a beautiful country with stunning landscapes and geological features, and a fascinating history. But nothing could compete with the feeling of leaping into the crystal clear turquoise waters of the Blue Lagoon on Comino Island. At last, I was able to enjoy some of the R and R that I had been craving for so long.

2. Sun, sea and speciality coffee in Porto
I'd planned my holiday in Malta with as much notice as is sensible in these COVID times, but when I had some annual leave to use in November, before the widespread emergence of the Omicron variant, I was delighted to be able to book a last-minute city break in Porto. It was almost like the old days! Porto is a great destination for a city break — there's a lot of history and culture to explore, it has a vibrant food and speciality coffee scene and it's compact enough that you can see a lot of the main sights on foot. I was also lucky to enjoy warm, sunny weather throughout my trip, which made walking along the Douro River and padding in the sea even more pleasant.

3. Castles, whisky and urban hikes in Edinburgh
Although my Malta trip went ahead as planned, after last year's cancellations, I hedged my bets and booked a few days in Edinburgh at the start of my annual leave, just in case foreign travel was restricted again. I hadn't been to the Scottish capital for almost three decades and my parents and I had a wonderful trip. Highlights included visiting Edinburgh Castle, climbing up to Arthur's Seat, a whisky tasting at Scotch at The Balmoral and dining at Noto, featured in my annual coffee and food awards. I also managed to visit 11 speciality coffee shops during my time in the city. There's still plenty more to see — and coffee to drink — for the next time I'm back. Hopefully, it won't take another 27 years!

4. Bank holiday weekend in Kent
Back in May, when the UK was starting to open up again, I was desperate to get out of London for the sunny bank holiday weekend at the end of the month. Unsurprisingly, most hotels on the coast within a two-hour train ride of London were all booked up, but I booked a room in Canterbury, using it as a base to explore the Kent coast. I ate visited Canterbury cathedral and had a fab meal at The Goods Shed, ate oysters and lobster in Whitstable and sunbathed on the soft sand of Ramsgate beach. There was also good speciality coffee to be found in Canterbury and Whitstable.

5. Attending gigs and football matches again
A few months into the pandemic, I wrote about how my lifelong love of Wolverhampton Wanderers and my recently rediscovered love of the band Suede had helped me to maintain a sense of connection in uncertain and lonely times. Happily, in 2021, I've been able to attend four Wolves matches at Molineux, all of which we lost 1–0: a Celta Vigo friendly, games against Spurs and Manchester United that we really deserved to win, and a game we didn't deserve to lose against Liverpool, who scored in the 94th minute. Unfortunately, we didn't score in any of these games and I was disappointed to have to cancel tickets to the Chelsea game just before Christmas; it was a 0–0 draw, so I didn't miss much...

As for Suede, they finally played the UK gigs of their twice-delayed Coming Up tour in November, 25 years after the iconic album's original release. Although it's not my favourite album, it was the album that got me into the band in the first place and every song is a banger. My brother joined me at the Ally Pally gig, the first half of which was a full run-through Coming Up, while the second half included numerous other favourites, including a song from their upcoming ninth album. My favourite moment was lead singer Brett Anderson and excellent support act Nadine Shah's sublime acoustic duet of The Wild Ones — one of my Desert Island Discs songs. It was strange to be at a gig again and in close proximity to so many people, but it was an amazing night, which served to remind me just how much I miss live music.

Before all of these events, I found creative outlets to express my passion for Suede and Wolves. I contributed to a tribute video for Stay Together, my favourite Suede song, with The Insatiable Ones back in February (blink and you'll miss me at 1:20). And my friends and I did our own version of Eurovision for the second year running. After taking second place for my 2020 entry Bermondsey (a love story about my neighbourhood, set to the tune of Waterloo), I picked another Swedish Eurovision-winning song for my 2021 entry: Euphoria by Loreen, which I rewrote as Dreaming Is For Free (Wolves Ay We). It was my retelling of Wolves' rise over the past four years, thanks in no small part to our manager Nuno EspĂ­rito Santo. Sadly, literally hours before my song's premiere, Nuno lost his job as manager. I could have done a quick rewrite replacing the Nunos with Brunos, but I decided to leave it as a tribute to Nuno. In case you're curious, here's my music video (with apologies for the singing), and the full lyrics are here.

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