Since the pandemic, life has gotten smaller. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and in many ways it is not. These days, more thought needs to be invested in the planning of outings. Spontaneous nights out to concerts or plays are less frequent, and less certain. If you are single then your circle of friends may have contracted. It has in my case. When the two kilometre lockdown was imposed, followed by the five kilometre restriction then people were excluded from my life, by virtue of physical location. With worry over transmission, that distance seemed to continue after the lockdown lifted. Self-reliance became more essential. Being happy in your own company took on added importance. Being willing to travel abroad alone, comfortable in your own skin, is one of the skills that Covid has bestowed on me. I was accustomed to solo travel before the pandemic but it was the exception rather than the rule. I preferred back then to travel with company. I still do in fact, but in a situation where it’s a choice between yet another canal walk alone in Dublin or a little foreign jaunt alone – I choose the latter.
So it was last weekend I booked a trip to the capital of Croatia, the city of Zagreb. This was my first trip to Croatia and my second trip to a country from the former Yugoslavia, having visited Belgrade in Serbia in 2009. Croatia is now a popular seaside destination on the Mediterranean. Direct flights from Dublin to Dubrovnik; Split and Zadar are increasingly popular. Zagreb is about 150 kilometres inland. It’s a city of almost a million people so a decent yet manageable size. Press 2 below for next page
Avid readers of this blog will be aware of my adventure as the foreman of a jury in a high court criminal case back in 2018. As a result of that I was excused from any obligation to appear on a jury for a decade. However it was also stated that in the event that I was called before ten years had elapsed, and if I was so inclined, then there would be no obstacle put in my place. Jurors are selected from the electoral register. Back in 2018 I was registered to vote at my Dublin address. In the interim I had moved my vote back to my childhood home in Limerick (for reasons not relevant to this tale). Over Christmas a letter appeared, summoning me to jury selection in Limerick Circuit Court on Mulgrave Street at 11.30am. I had been slightly disillusioned (yet fascinated) by my previous experience (you can read about it at this link – https://midnightmurphy.com/2018/04/26/courtroom-adventures-part-one/). Like Sinead O’Connor in her epic hit, I was willing to give it another try however. I take my constitutional responsibilities seriously.
I’ve already described my efforts during the pandemic to visit both Lithuania and Latvia, and how the public health situation had consistently thwarted my efforts. I finally visited Lithuania last November. Vilnius is a wonderful city. Latvia remained unvisited.
About a week ago I was checking the Ryanair website. The evening before I had watched a Dutch documentary on YouTube called ‘Ryanair: Mayday, Mayday’ from 2013. This film had alleged serious safety failings on the part of Ryanair in its relentless pursuit of lower fares. Ryanair denied everything of course. Michael O’Leary doesn’t convince me – he has the grubby demeanour of a used car salesman with a substance abuse problem. Whether or not he would, he looks like he’d scream at an under-seven’s team if they lost a match. That said I am a sturdy flier – getting into a tube of metal and flying at 35,000 feet above ground for hours on end, is a leap of faith. No point in needless worry. I will always try to find an alternative to Ryanair if possible. This isn’t always possible, so I will continue to hit that ‘Buy ticket’ button. On the Fare Finder section of the website while browsing that evening, I found a return flight for twenty-eight euros. As this trip was only forty-eight hours long, I could pack all my requirements into my stylish man-bag without paying for an additional carry-on. Excitingly the journey was only a few days hence.
My final trip of the year was touch and go, as to whether it would actually happen. I booked the ticket only a few days before departure, when Ireland was shutting down once again. I had planned to see Villagers in concert on Saturday night in Vicar Street. As cases of the omicron variant were exploding, new restrictions were introduced, meaning the show was cancelled. Travel was still permitted however, so I went to the ‘Fare finder’ section of the Ryanair website, and entered my flight budget (under 80eur). The result came back as either Birmingham or Sibiu in Romania. I like the city of Birmingham, but this was not a difficult choice. I would be traveling for the first time to the country of Romania, to a city whose name I had never previously heard.
In the days prior to departure I checked the news to make sure that new travel restrictions had not been imposed. I had a bad case of the nerves – fear that while abroad, Ireland might place Romania on a red list of countries. I was still going though. Some precautions would need to be taken. I carried a month’s supply of insulin in case I got stranded. My work laptop was neatly packed in the event I was still abroad on Tuesday when I was due back at work. I had plotted my exit from Romania to Budapest via bus, in case any flight bans were introduced. Excessive planning on my part, perhaps, but everything seemed so flimsy, I thought it wiser to be prepared.
Sibiu is a town of approximately 170,000 people in the centre of Romania. Located in Transylvania it is known as ‘The City with Eyes’ for the design of the houses with eye-shaped windows in the rooves. It was originally a Saxon city, and until World War 2 it was a city where the ethnic German population of Romania lived.
I was staying in a little ground floor apartment in a courtyard off a street, that was metres away from the Piața Mare (Grand Square) where the annual Christmas market was being held. The two bloodhounds roaming this courtyard were very friendly but had a disconcerting habit of jumping on you to express their happiness to see you. I arrived too late on my first night to go out, so ordered a pizza and watched Dolly Parton videos on MTV Romania – the woman is a star the world over.
After my Christmas trip to Limerick, on the 28th of December I bid farewell to my family to catch my train back to Dublin. As is quite common this was not a direct train. I took the 15.55 from Limerick Colbert Station to Limerick Junction, from where at about 16.30 I would board my connection – the 15.25 from Cork’s Kent Station. Then onwards to Dublin Heuston. Upon arrival at the Junction (which I may have previously referred to as the groin of Ireland thanks to its singular lack of loveliness, and unending air of bleakness and despair – not forgetting the eternal rain of course) I saw the Cork train sitting at Platform 2. In just over ninety minutes I believed I would be back in the Big Smoke.
I boarded the Cork train in carriage E. Thankfully it didn’t seem too crowded. I had my book in my stylish manbag (‘The corrections’ by Jonathan Franzen). This trip would be brief, I thought to myself.
Originally my intention had been to visit Latvia and Lithuania in March 2020. I would fly into Riga, spend a few days there; followed by a bus tour to Vilnius which would stop at historic castles and parks en route. My journey would end in Vilnius for a few more days, before my flight home from the Lithuanian capital. Something happened however, meaning the trip was cancelled – the global pandemic. I postponed the holiday until October 2020, as obviously everything would be back to normal by then. Unfortunately that wasn’t possible. I subsequently switched my flights to March 2021. Pandemic said no. Finally I moved the dates to November. The Latvian leg of the trip was cancelled unfortunately, because of a fresh lockdown in that country. Vilnius remained open however. Being both vaxxed and recovered, I decided to take my chances. My trip to Vilnius might be brief but it had been a long time coming. It was time to hit the runway.
After checking in to my grim (but incredibly cheap) apartment I found my way randomly to Bernelių užeiga Vilniuje – a traditional restaurant in the city centre. The food was potato based and tasty. The lounge singer switched between Lithuanian folk music and easy-listening in English. ‘You’ by 10 Sharp was a highlight. I decided against the ballroom dancing when it began. I am not Billy Idol. There’d be no dancing with myself this holiday.
The decision to travel to Norway was made in the early summer. It’s a country I had never visited, and knew very little about (Sue Townsend’s famed anti-hero Adrian Mole had once done a school project on the Norwegian leather industry so I was reasonably well versed on that facet of the country. I was also aware of legendary Norwegian pop and A-Ha). My friend R had previously visited, loved it and so we decided that to celebrate the possibility that life might be going back to normal, we booked a trip.
Our early October travel dates were deliberate. The days were still long and the bitter cold that Scandinavian winters are known for hadn’t arrived yet. The SAS flights cost only 120euro for a return trip.
Oslo airport was as clean and neat as you’d expect. What was not so expected was the chaos in the off-license at the duty-free. Norway is one of the world’s most expensive countries when it comes to booze, so the natives purchase as much as they can in the duty free upon arrival back in the homeland. We weren’t there for the duty free. We made our way to the station and the half hour trek to Oslo central station.
We were staying in different hotels both within a three minute stroll to the station – which became our meeting point.
Non-essential travel from Ireland was re-permitted from the end of July. Having bought a flight to Malaga on the Costa Del Sol earlier that year, before the date when restriction were eased, for the day after said restrictions were finally lifted was perfect timing. This would be my first trip to Malaga – though I’d been to sister Andalusian city of Seville en route to Morocco some years earlier. My preconception was that Malaga was a gateway to Torremolinos and Fuengirola and those massive sun holiday resorts so beloved by the Irish and our northern European neighbours.
What hit me first as I disembarked the plane at 8pm was how hot it was. I’d forgotten to take into account the sweltering heat of southern Spain in summer. I should have known – I’d been to Greece and Malta during high season on previous travels. My lack of foresight was my own fault. I wasn’t worried – I was on holidays. I would struggle through. More concerning was my lack of digital Covid vaccine certificate. Having been fully vaccinated since May I should have received this soon to be compulsory travel pass. No such luck. I had the cardboard HSE card detailing my status but was worried it might be looked at askance by the Spanish authorities. There was nothing I could do about that now. I wasn’t going to delay my trip for the sake of a QR code.
My hotel was in the centre of the surprisingly large city. My research indicated that Malaga was Spain’s sixth largest city with a population of 600,000 people. Good news. This wasn’t just a beach resort. Press 2 below for next page
By July of this year, international travel out of Dublin Airport remained banned (in theory) for all but essential purposes. Obviously a hastily muttered ‘funeral’ to any inquiring policeman would see you waved through security. I am not a convincing liar however, so I performed my usual clever trick – I flew from Belfast for my upcoming trip. My destination was the Scottish Highlands. The plan was to visit the city of Inverness to where you could get a direct flight. I contacted a Glaswegian friend M, and asked her if she had any recommendations for Inverness and the surrounding area.
‘When are you going?’ came her reply. I told her early July. To my astonishment she told me that she and her partner D had bought a camper van and were planning a camping holiday in the Highlands at the same time I was visiting. An offer of a tent and a seat in the van was made. This was a welcome development. Solo travel is very enjoyable, and I have become a veteran of such excursions. Traveling with friends is preferable, however. Shared experiences take the edge when it comes to travel.
My EasyJet flight was early morning from Belfast International. The thought of rising at 5am to catch a bus from Dublin filled me with horror. I booked a room in a youth hostel close to the Europa bus station in Belfast that would allow me to emerge from my crypt at a more humane 8.30am and reach the airport on time for my flight. I ignored the fact that I was at least twenty years older than everyone staying in the hostel – I had paid for a private room so I could close my door on the world.
The flight the next day was uneventful, short, and almost empty. The bus to Inverness town from the airport departed once an hour. The next scheduled service was in twenty minutes. I asked the driver if he was going to town. He said that he’d be back in the airport in twenty minutes but if I wanted to board the bus now that was fine. The airport shuttle was a back-and-forth service. I may as well see some of the Highlands. I hopped on the bus and went on my way. The landscape around Inverness is very like West Cork – very beautiful. Press 2 below for next page
As this strangest of years draws to a close, I am putting finger to keypad one more time to describe my travels in the time of pandemic. My final jaunt of the year taken before the second lockdown was imposed was to Venice as September turned to October. I will preface this post with my usual disclaimer. While traveling to, and while in Venice, I observed all physical distancing, hand hygiene and mask-wearing guidelines. I observed the fourteen-day quarantine period upon my return to Ireland – which as I have previously mentioned is not that difficult when you live alone. I kept this excursion entirely to myself again, not wanting to hear people’s criticism or judgement of my decision to travel. The only person I was placing at risk by my choice was myself. For the sake of my sanity, I thought my decision was sound.