2018: A Year in Review (COTAs)

Street Art from Berlin Wall, Germany

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​The end of the year is always a time of reflection – sometimes, whether you like it or not! It’s almost impossible to check social media without encountering a steady stream of achievements, resolutions and future goals. It’s a good excuse for some introspection; taking stock of where you are and how you got there.

It’s safe to say, it’s been a HUGE year for us. We started the blog, quit our jobs, gave almost everything away and set off around the world. And that was just August.

We’ve been across the UK, out to Estonia, bussed our way south through Latvia and Lithuania, crossed Poland into Germany, hopped over to the Czech Republic and then back to the UK for the holidays. I’ve seen more of Europe in the last 3 months than the last 30 years. Introspection rears its head again …. no wonder there are so many lists looking back!

Not wanting to be left out, we made our own wrap-up of 2018. We’ve seen lots of different variations from lots of our favourite blogs. So rather than a straight up series of Top 10s, we decided to put an Oscars-esque spin on things.

So without further ado, here are the Cultura Obscura Travel Awards (COTAs) for 2018. (Unrelated fact: Dagney and I used to work in a cinema).

READ: All our COTAs!

Since there may have been some disagreements… My (Dagney’s) comments are below in purple (like this one)!

Quick Stats

Countries (& cities) visited during 2018

(Not all written about – yet!)

– UK (London, Norwich, Isle of Wight, East Grinstead, Crowland, Coventry, Portsmouth, Gloucester, and many more)
– Austria (Vienna)
– Slovakia (Bratislava)
– Estonia (Tallinn)
– Latvia (Riga, Salaspils)
– Lithuania (Vilnius, Kaunas, Šiauliai, Klaipeda, Joudkrante)
– Poland (Warsaw, Krakow)
– Germany (Berlin)
– Czech Republic (Prague, Lidice, Sedlec, Terezín)

Despite having written about them in 2018 (and hopefully more in 2019!), we did not go to India, Bhutan or Croatia last year. Therefore we did not include these countries in our 2018 COTAs.

THE COTAs (woooooo)

Best Accommodation

WINNER: Vilnius

If there’s one thing I hope we can all agree on, it’s that being in bed is great. If we could spend more time in bed, that’s an immediate improvement of our overall quality of life, right? Any traveller wants a comfortable bed, because everything else will be all the better for it.

Sunset over Vilnius near Uzupis, a pink sky at the end of a road lined with parked cars on one side
Sunset over Vilnius near Užupis, Vilnius

​Sunset over our quiet, suburban neighbourhood

Our Airbnb in Vilnius, it turned out, had a 700 Euro mattress according to previous reviews. I’ve never slept so well in my LIFE. On top of that, the apartment was very comfortable, stylish, and had all the amenities needed for two people. It’s situated within walking distance of the city centre, it’s well connected to public transport, and it’s quiet. To top it off, it’s very affordable and the landlady is very friendly.

Also, seriously, did I mention the bed?

PS: If you’re not  yet a member of Airbnb, you can sign up through us and get £25 towards your first booking over £75.

Other nominees:

Prague: A close second! Comfortable room in shared Airbnb apartment with friendly host and her French bulldog Oli (who is A-DOR-A-BLE).

London: Monopoly accommodations is right in the heart of North London so everything you could want is just minutes away. Comfortable room and friendly staff/owner (sensing a theme at all?).

Best Day Trip

WINNER: Wieliczka Salt Mine

There are some very cool things in this world, but not many of them are as cool as an underground cathedral carved out of salt, complete with 3D pictograms of the life of Jesus and a statue of Pope John Paul II. There just aren’t.

The tour is fascinating. There’s so much that’s just underneath us! There are loads of statues, displays, huge chambers, interactive parts for kids, and it’s only a 30 minute drive from Krakow (there’s a train that goes direct from the city as well).

The church inside the Wieliczka Salt Mine, just outside of Krakow, Poland
Yes, this is all underground! Be impressed.

The café food is not bad either. And yes, it was salty enough for Dagney.

Also, did he mention yet that I love salt and underground spaces… like a lot? That having been said, I would probably switch this and the Hill of Witches, but only because this was my second time going and the salt mine seemed a lot busier than my previous trip. It also felt, dare I say it, more touristy and all about dem monies, yo. 

Other nominees:

​The Hill of Witches (​Lithuania): As fascinating as the name suggests, the Hill of Witches is an outdoor sculpture ​gallery in Juodkrantė. Enjoy a healthy walk through ​the forest whilst admiring forty years worth of carvings of witches, devils and other folklore.

Sedlec Ossuary/Bone Chapel (Czech Republic): Located in Kutná Hora, this chapel contains the skeletons of over 40,000 people. The bones are artistically arranged in piles, sculptures and in one case a vast chandelier overhanging from the main chamber.

Best ​Museum

We didn’t disagree on this one, I was just being helpful!

We are not including sites of mass death, such as concentration camps, although they are often listed as museums. This is because we want to talk about and spread love to more traditional museums. Also because otherwise trying to define what falls under this category gets out of hand. That doesn’t mean we won’t change it in the future, though…

Oh, and I didn’t include places we didn’t both go. Otherwise, this one may have made the list: Museum of Genocide Victims (Vilnius).

WINNER: East Grinstead Museum

We wrote an entire post about how impressed we were by the East Grinstead Museum. It’s a small museum, but it packs a punch. I think the reason this museum jumped to the top of our list is purely because it kind of just came out of left field. We weren’t expecting much of anything from East Grinstead, to be honest. We were just spending a few hours there one afternoon for the hell of it, really. So to stumble across this free museum dedicated to sharing such an incredible story was a very welcome surprise. It’s well curated, the staff are lovely and we learned a lot. Which is all you want from a museum, right?

East Grinstead McIndoe Statue, Sackville College, Cultura Obscura

Other nominees:

KGB Hotel Viru Museum: This might not come as a surprise since I listed it as one of our favourite ​dark tourism sites to see in Tallinn. I do believe part of what made this experience so fantastic was the fact that (a) we were alone and (b) our tour guide, Pawel, was absolutely hilarious. He had one of the driest senses of humour I’ve ever come across. But he was so open about the effects of the KGB and it was refreshing. Hearing about how he grew up under their thumb, he very matter of factly said things like, “We could not buy jeans. You own jeans, you get arrested. But, we think it is worth it to own jeans. Who does not love their jeans this much?”

Tolerance Centre  (Shoah section): The Tolerance Centre is part of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museums across Vilnius. Within the same building as the Tolerance Centre is the Samuel Bak Museum (dedicated to the life and art of Samuel Bak, a Jewish Lithuanian artist), and a few other exhibits. Additionally, it houses a Shoah (Holocaust) exhibit, or, as it is translated: Rescued Lithuanian Jewish Child Tells about Shoah.

This exhibit is dedicated to the memory of both the children who died, and those who saved children throughout the Holocaust. When you first enter, you take a stone and you walk with it through the exhibit. About midway through is an area to place the stone, in honour of the dead (a Jewish tradition). As you walk and read about the horrors many endured before being rescued, a child sings in the background, their voice eerily floats through the silence. It was incredibly poignant.

Best Public Transport System

WINNER: Prague

Any city with a working tram network already has a special place in my heart. Aside from the efficiency of hopping on or off as needed, I get quite nostalgic about trams. They remind me of a simpler time, and I feel like I’m in a Studio Ghibli movie. Did I mention we worked in a cinema?

View of Charles Bridge from the Malá Strana Bridge Tower in Prague | Cultura Obscura Travel Blog #charlesbridge #prague #darktourism #praha #czechrepublic #czechia #europe

On top of that, the bus network was reliable, and there’s an underground metro as well. Best of all, each mode of transport was very user friendly. Despite not speaking a word of Czech, we could work out exactly where we were and when our stop would be at all times, so we never got lost.

It should also probably be noted that we used the transport system the most in Prague.

Other nominees:

Berlin: Has a tram system (yay!) and two metro lines, but it’s a bit more of a challenge to find your way around using the map system. Plus, it’s considerably more expensive to use public transport than the other parts of Europe we visited this year.

FYI: The tram system is only in East Berlin. Please don’t yell at us if you can’t find a tram in West Berlin.

London: It has one of the oldest and most comprehensive underground train networks which can take you wherever you need to go …. as long as it’s working. Make sure to check for a good service on the line(s) you need. Citywide travel cards (Oyster cards) make it easy to use trains and busses. Just scan in and scan out again. Or, you can use your debit card if it has a wireless payment chip.

RELATED: Dark & Unusual Things to do in London

Best Food

WINNER: The Index Café in Riga (Art Nouveau district)

For Dagney, it was the beetroot and mushroom tagliatelle. For me, it was the cottage cheese pancakes with berries and sour cream. So light, so fluffy, so delicious! An excellent café with a chill vibe, good music, friendly staff and good menus. We went there for brunch and came back for lunch another day!

Cottage cheese pancakes at Index Cafe in Riga, Latvia | Cultura Obscura Travel Blog #foodietravel #riga #latvia #pancakeday #2018inreview #bestof2018 #cota

Since I’m sharing my opinions on this category, I should mention that I wholeheartedly agree with this winner. That tagliatelle was to die for. And we even agree on how good Jeremy’s food was. Those pancakes were the bomb.

Other nominees:


Bombay Masala Indian restaurant (Warsaw): Delicious food, relaxed atmosphere, pretty decor. What’s not to love?

Chimney cake (street food, Krakow): Imagine a plaster cast on your arm, except it’s made of sugary dough and lined with Nutella. Oh yes.

Jeremy eating Chimney Cake in Krakow

Beigelistai (Vilnius): If you want to find your way into my heart, find me a good bagel place. And boy, did Vilnius deliver. I’m not entirely sure if there are other bagel places in Vilnius, we didn’t bother to find out. Why fix something if it aint broke, right? Anyway, we ate here a lot. There is usually only one type of bagel, which is either sesame and poppy or seeds (flax, maybe?). But man, are they delicious. You can get them with sweet or savoury toppings. Our favourite was a simple cream cheese and honey – a combination I didn’t know I needed in my life until now. The one downside is that it is around the corner from a school and during lunch break and end of the school day it is crawling with loud, excited school children. Fun Fact: Bagels are originally from Poland. The earliest mention of bagels is 1610. Poland and Lithuania were the same country until 1795. Therefore the bagel is technically a Polish-Lithuanian food.

Jasmin Chinese Restaurant (Bratislava): We went here for my birthday in 2018 with some friends, and everyone except Jeremy loved their food. Which is why it’s probably not even in his top 10. But the real stars of the show – for me – were their sesame balls, which I had for dessert. Perfectly fried balls of sesame paste and doughy goodness. I mean, seriously delicious! Although gross if you hate sesame. Obviously.

Bagel from Beigelistai in Vilnius, Lithuania | Cultura Obscura Travel Blog #foodietravel #vilnius #lithuania #bagels #2018inreview #bestof2018 #cota
Bagel from Beigelistai in Vilnius, Lith​uania

On British Food

So, if you know me, you’ll probably know that I give the UK a really hard time about their food. As in, I don’t like British food. At the risk of just offending a lot of people, I think it’s fairly tasteless and boring. But Jeremy likes it, so clearly we can still be friends if you do, as well. But it’s not just British food in Britain that I moan about. I think most foreign food in Britain is also, well, tasteless and boring. And while it’s pretty standard that when I ask for my food to be extra extra spicy it’s never actually the level of spice desired, I feel this is especially true in the UK.

However, because I don’t want it said that I never said anything nice about British/British-made food, here are a few places and dishes that made me sing a different tune (but still don’t make my top 3):

Dishoom, London: After staying in London for 3 weeks, I have now been to every Dishoom location in London (not all on this trip!) and I can say they’re all worth it. This is my favourite Indian restaurant in London and after suffering through many subpar spots, this is the one for me. Maybe there are better, but I don’t care, because while the food is good, the chai is not only perfect, but bottomless. Yeah, that’s right.

Haaz, London: The food at this Turkish restaurant was pretty tasty. I lived in the Middle East for years, though, so it’s fairly hard to impress me with hummus. If your expectations/standards are lower, this is definitely top end. What does deserve extra mention, though, is their mint and lemon ice cream. I still dream about this ice cream. Not kidding.

Prego, Isle of Wight: One thing I’ve always been pleased about is the fact that the best pizza I’ve ever had was in Italy. You hear mixed things about Italian food in Italy. For some it’s the best they’ve ever had, for others the worst. I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum myself. However, I can say with absolute sincerity that the best pizza I’ve ever had was in Vernazza, Italy. What seems far more unlikely, but is equally true is that one of the other best pizzas I’ve ever had was at this Italian restaurant on the Isle of Wight. It was a Tartufo pizza: masrcapone and wild mushroom base with rocket, truffle oil and mozzarella. Heaven, right?

Sahara, Norwich: I’m genuinely upset that we didn’t discover this spot earlier. Which is actually more embarrassing because it was around the corner from where we lived in Norwich. It is run by the nicest Algerian man (okay, so this one might be blatant cheating, but it deserves a mention!). Although he’s Algerian, the restaurant is technically Moroccan themed. The food here is authentic and tasty, and, more importantly, so is the mint tea!

The Horse & Groom, Guilford: To clarify, the food was fine. I don’t remember what I had, so, read into that what you will. However, my dessert was super tasty. To risk sounding like a broken record, British desserts are of no interest to me. From time to time I’m in the mood and I’m always disappointed. Until now. I ordered some kind of avocado contraption (I tried to look it up on their menu, but they’ve completely changed it since then as pubs are want to do). It was avocado ice cream wrapped in a dark chocolatey shell to, you know, look like an avocado. Complete with a chocolate “seed” in the middle. So that was amazing. On the other hand, they were also serving Pumpkin pie with maple syrup and while I’m sure that sounds appealing to some people, it sounds like an abomination to me!

Most Memorable Experience

WINNER​: ​​​The town of Lidice (Czech Republic)

The town of Lidice was literally wiped off the map by the Nazis in 1942 as a reprisal for the assassination of one of their top ranking officers (Reinhard Heydrich). All residents were removed and either killed, put in concentration camps or sent to Germany in the case of some of the children. All buildings were then razed to the ground. They even dug up the graveyard.

Entrance to the Lidice Museum and Memorial
Tree-lined path to entrance to the Lidice memorial and museum

What stands there now is a memorial park, complete with sculptures, rose gardens and a museum. ​It was peaceful and serene, and walking through that calm place was very moving, considering what had happened there. It’s far from a happy place, but I’m glad we were able to see it.

​Other nominees:

Street art tours (London/Berlin): We’ve posted before about London’s street art tours. If you happen to be in Berlin, however, there’s also a tour of Kreuzberg available that has equally amazing pieces!

While we didn’t go on a street art tour of Warsaw, we also enjoyed the street art Warsaw had to offer.

Riga Ghetto Museum: Similar to our Lidice experience, the Riga Ghetto Museum has multiple well-documented and creatively displayed exhibits. The museum is an ongoing project to preserve and raise awareness of the history of Jews in Latvia. You can find out more about them here.

Street Art, Sr.X, Shoreditch, Cultura Obscura, Dope Art Tours

Most ​negative Experience

“WINNER”: Birkenau/Auschwitz tourists

As we were in Poland, we visited the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. Whilst there, I expected to feel a lot of negative emotions due to the nature of the atrocities committed. What I didn’t expect to feel much of was anger. But I did. Why? Selfies.

Two tourists taking photographs of the train tracks leading to the entrance to the Birkenau concentration camp in the distance | Cultura Obscura Travel Blog #culturaobscura #darktourism #Birkenau #traintracks #photography #tourism
Tourists taking pictures of the Birkenau entrance (NOT themselves!)

I don’t see any reason why you should need to be in a picture of a concentration camp. Surely the picture itself is proof you were there? But even if you feel it’s necessary, WHY ON EARTH WOULD YOU BE SMILING? Do people not know where they are? The lack of respect shown made it hard for me to concentrate at some points. I came away from it with a sadness for the human condition, but not just from the genocide.

Other nominees:

The Old Operating Theatre debacle: As previously documented, I almost passed out in public at a London museum.

An awkward bus trip from Klaipeda to Juodkrantė:We accidentally stole some bus seats from a couple of older Lithuanian ladies. We tried to make it right, but they insisted on moving somewhere else and loudly decrying the state of the youth today for the whole journey.

It really was an accident!

Best City

WINNER: Vilnius

The mattress alone in our accommodation in Vilnius might have won it this award. But I found I enjoyed our time in Vilnius the most. It has everything you could want from a city, plus beautiful architecture and a rich history. We found a café called Beigelistai* and I could live there. Several times we installed ourselves and our laptops there and had fresh bagels and coffee all day.

Side of a house near Vilnius train station featuring large street art mural of a yellow man pulling himself out of the building while holding a smaller yellow man in his hand | Cultura Obscura Travel Blog #culturaobscura #streetart #osgemeos #Vilnius #Lithuania
​This yellow man by Os Gemeos greets everyone who comes to Vilnius by bus or train

On top of everything, you also get to enjoy Užupis – a self-declared independent republic for artistically minded inhabitants. They even have their own flag and money!

*You may remember Beigelstai from my ramblings about food above…

Other nominees:

Warsaw: The most metropolitan city we stayed in. Easy-to-use public transport, great restaurants, and all manner of shops to restock on clothes/equipment.

There are also a lot of dark tourism sites in Warsaw to help us learn about the history.

Prague: Again, you had me at trams. Also, Prague is a particularly picturesque ​place. With its spires and its river and its castle overlooking the city, it’s one of the most photographed skylines in the world!

I’ll be honest, visiting Prague over Christmas did it no favours for me. It was my second time in Prague and while there were bits I really enjoyed, the closer I got to the city centre, the more soulless it felt. If you’re planning a trip to Prague, please do yourself a favour and head off the beaten track! (We’ll be writing some upcoming posts with great suggestions!)

My third choice would be Tallinn. I mean, have you read my post dedicated entirely to how much I just clicked with Estonia In fairness to Jeremy, we had a great time in Prague, and I’ve spent more time in Estonia. Plus, hello, instant connection! Also, I got a bunch of bug bites in Prague (and Jeremy didn’t get a single one!), and the itchiness may have contributed to my slightly soured mood.

Best Piece of Travel Kit/Tech

WINNER: The humble shoehorn

I must be old. I’m a fan of comfortable slippers, I enjoy a nice sit down. And now my favourite piece of technology is a slightly curved bit of plastic. However, if you do a lot of walking you might end up with blisters. Having a shoehorn to ease your raw heels into your shoes becomes a massive comfort after a while. We’ve had to break in a couple of new pairs of shoes recently, and if you don’t want to dislodge a bandaid from the back of your foot then a shoehorn becomes invaluable. Oh, and they make great backscratchers.

Other nominees:

Good ol’ Google Maps: The time saved by being able to look up how to get to places on Google Maps with Europe’s roaming 3G has been incalculable. Would have been the top spot but we know it’s a luxury and we definitely won’t always have it.

Reading the Kindle | Cultura Obscura Travel Blog #kindle #reading #travelbloggers

Kindle: For when you need to curl up with a good book, but that book also needs to be small.

No, but seriously, without my Kindle, I would be a very lost, very sad little Dagney. And now that I’ve introduced Jeremy to the joy of Kindling (shut up, it’s totally a verb), he’s sold, as well. As an avid reader, chronic over-packer and budding hoarder extraordinaire, buying a Kindle was the smartest thing I ever did!

Most Important Lesson Learned

WINNER: Travel light

When we set out on this adventure, we boiled our possessions down to a bare minimum of necessity. Just two backpacks each, containing mostly clothes and tech (laptops, chargers, adaptors etc.). But even this is too much. There are items I’ve carried with me for months that I just haven’t used. Part of this comes down to us planning for both hot and cold weather. There’s not much call for shorts and flip-flops during a European winter. So one of this year’s challenges is to see if we can shed any further unnecessary baggage.

Read about some of the invaluable lessons we learned after 1 month on the road here.

Other nominees:

Salt sometimes looks like sugar: It’s mainly my own fault, but sometimes that tasty-looking bread snack might just make you thirsty.

If you want to get to know a city, take a walking tour: Fairly self-explanatory, but as I said, before this year I’d never done one. Now a walking tour is one of the first things I research about a place!

Bonus: Sometimes, my wife has longer and more in-depth opinions than I do, especially about food.

I really didn’t add that last one.

We hope you enjoyed the 2018 COTAs. Have you been to any of these spots and agree or disagree with us? What are you highlights from 2018? What are you looking forward to in 2019?

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