Westwards travel highlights 2023 – the year in review

Kanda Myojin in Akihabara, Tokyo - does this sum up our 2023 travel review?

It is this time of the year again when we look back on our life and travels during the last twelve months. It was the first year after the Corona pandemic when our guidebook and tour-guiding work went back to a normal pre-corona level. Several outdated guidebooks urgently needed revisions, and we also did a long research trip for a new guidebook on the Canton Bern in Switzerland. Work kept us busy throughout the year. Therefore, we did not have as much time for independent travel as we had hoped for. Among the highlights of the year were our meetings with old friends in Egypt, Japan and Switzerland (and of course in Germany).

***this 2023 travel review blog post contains affiliate links of our guidebooks***

Social distancing at the pyramids: in early 2023 the remnants of Corona were still everywhere

Some travel Statistics for 2023

  • Altogether we spent 212 nights away from home – this is roughly 58% of the year.
  • We visited nine countries (apart from Germany, where we live). Only one of them was a new country for us – Serbia!
  • 9 nights on public transport – namely three nights each on buses, trains, and planes
  • 35 nights in our beloved Hilleberg tent
  • We went to see several new UNESCO sites: Abu Mena near Alexandria, Wadi al-Hitan in the Egyptian desert, the Rietveld Schröder House in Utrecht, some prehistoric pile-dwellings in Unteruhldingen, the watch maker town Le Locle in Switzerland, the monasteries of Sopoćani and Studenica, and Felix Romuliana in Serbia. And Isa also went to the old pilgrimage route of the Kumano Kodo in Japan for work.
  • 10 flight legs – still too many
  • 4 guidebooks published (Egypt, Japan, Outdoor Adventures in Germany, Uzbekistan)
  • 18 blog posts published
  • one article about us in the German newspaper Tagesspiegel

January – Egypt

The first trip of 2023 brought us back to Egypt for a guidebook update. As always, we enjoyed the Egyptian sun, the food, and the friendly people. We also caught up with a lot of friends and work contacts and managed to visit the two UNESCO sites that we hadn’t seen before – the El Mena monastery near Alexandria and the whale fossils in Wadi al-Hitan in the Western desert.

Petrified whale skeleton in the Wadi al Hitan

Wadi al-Hitan, the Valley of the Whales, was one of the absolute highlights of our travel year. At Wadi-Al Hitan researchers discovered fossilized whales with hind legs. About 50 million years ago the whales developed from land-based animals to ocean-living mammals. The Western desert of Egypt was then covered by the Thetys ocean! So, while the area is now a desert far from any sea, at the time these early types of whales lived in the lagoons close to the coast, occasionally still coming ashore. Today you can see fossilized whale skeletons lying in the desert there.

The Dahabeya Abundance on the River Nile

We also tremendously enjoyed a day trip sailing on a Dahabeya along the Nile with Johanna and Mohammed from Sail the Nile . If you want to go on a Nile trip but are reluctant to go on a big cruise ship, the smaller Dahabeya might be right for you. A Dahabeya is a traditional two-masted sailing boat. Until the 1870s they were the standard for Nile cruises and over the last few years their numbers have increased again. Different from the bygone days they are towed by diesel-powered tugboats if there is no wind. And the comfortable cabins on board provide electricity too.

February to March – Germany and the Netherlands

Back in Berlin we spent the better part of February with desk work. We wrote up the Egypt research for the guidebook and worked on the new edition of a Japan guidebook by the German publisher Trescher. The Japan guidebook was published in May and the Egypt guidebook in July.

Exterior of the Rietveld Schroeder house

At the end of February, we spent five wonderful days in the Netherlands, a country we have not yet travelled much. In Utrecht we went to see an iconic piece of modern architecture: the Rietveld Schröder House. In Leiden we finally visited the Siebold Museum, a memorial museum to Philipp Franz von Siebold, who spent 8 years in Japan during the 19th century. We also enjoyed some time in Delft and in The Hague.

Canal scene in Delft on our Netherlands trip 2023

A very short trip brought us to Bern in Switzerland for a boisterous birthday party of an old friend.

March to April – Japan

The cherry blossom season is always the main season for us to travel to Japan as tour guides for German groups. After three years of travel restrictions due to the Corona pandemic it was the first time that we could conduct these tours again. One of the tours led Isa to the spectacularly atmospheric pilgrimage sites of Kumano Kodo. The ancient pilgrimage routes are part of the Kii Mountains UNESCO World Heritage complex.

A River boat as part of the traditional Kumano Kodo pilgrimage, a 2023 highlight!

Another highlight of the trip was meeting up with our friends from Studio Kuu in Tokyo after the enforced Corona travel ban!

May – Germany

Returning to Germany briefly for a family event – Isa’s mother turned 85! – we prepared our next book projects. In between we found time for some exhibitions and a trip to Bitterfeld. This small East German town was an industrial centre of the GDR, and we visited the highly interesting Industry and Film Museum Wolfen. Don’t think of movies now – they produced the non-digital films that were necessary for analogue cameras.  Most of the quite complicated manufacturing process had to be done in in the dark to avoid exposure. Bitterfeld is also a great place to explore lost places! We did so on two geocaching adventures with friends from Berlin. This was not only great fun but also yielded some eery photos.

May to July – Japan again

An extended research trip for our Stefan Loose Japan guidebook led us to some rural areas of Japan that we are particularly fond of. This book has several authors, and we cover the regions of Chubu, Hokuriku, and Tohoku, as well as the Southern islands of Okinawa. As we are in the fourth edition already, there were few places that we had not visited before. Among them were historical sites from the era of Samurais, such as Narai Juku and the new battle museum at Sekigahara. After years of deprivation, watching a live sumo match was amazing

House of Light in Japan - light art by James Turrell features among the highlights of our 2023 review

Staying overnight in the House of Light in Tokamachi, a traditional Japanese Wooden house by the light artist James Turrell, was another highlight of 2023! At dusk and at dawn, a retractable roof opened in the living room and pink, purple, blue, green, and yellow lights illuminated the room. Watching the sky changing colour over the course of this colour programme was mind-blowing. If you want to stay at the House of Lights overnight, it is mandatory to make an early reservation. It is also possible to visit the house during the day (without the light show).

In Okinawa, the highlight of our trip was a kayaking tour to see the Sagaribana – flowers that only bloom at night. It was the first time we were in Okinawa at the right time of the year to see these flowers. The kayaking trip started at 4am in the morning. Paddling in the pitch-darkness only lit up by some flashlight, hearing the jungle noises and “looking for” the sweet smell of the sagaribana flowers was an incredible experience.

In June the guidebook „Legendäre Outdoorabenteuer in Deutschland“ by Lonely Planet was published. We contributed articles about the Hindelanger Via Ferrata, a trip on roller skis and a kayaking tour on the river Peene in Germany.

August to September – Switzerland

Travel blogger Natascha hiking via Hohtuerli /Blüemlisalp to Öschinensee in 2023

Barely returned from Japan, we left Berlin again for the Alps. For a new guidebook we went hiking, cycling, and sightseeing in the Canton Bern in Switzerland. While the famous Jungfrau Area (“Top of Europe”) was too touristy and crowded for our liking, we found some other unexpected pearls. Our favourite hike of the summer was a stage of the Via Alpina from Griesalp to Kandersteg via the 2778 m high Hohtürli pass. The route led through spectacular high-alpine landscapes and along impressive glaciers before reaching the deep-blue Lake Oeschinen.  

Westwards travel blogger in a Cheese Fondue picknick spot near Gstaad

A more bizarre experience was an outdoor cheese fondue in a giant fondue pot at a sweltering 33 degrees Celsius. To our surprise this unusual gourmet hike worked out well: the cheese fondue was quite tasty even in the heat of summer!

It was also in early September that the new edition of our Uzbekistan guidebook was finally published. 

September – Austria and Liechtenstein

Travel blogger Isa on the Drei-Schwestern-Steig

From Switzerland we went directly to Austria with a one-night stop in Liechtenstein, where we had spent a few days of fantastic hiking last year. In Austria we were again quite busy, now researching the update of our Tyrol guidebook. Due to the Corona pandemic, a lot of hotels and restaurants had closed for good or significantly changed opening hours. Nevertheless, we found time to visit another James Turell Skyspace in Lech, built high up in a breathtaking mountain scenery.

Skyspace by James Turrell in Oberlech, Austria

October – Serbia

In the latter half of October, we took time off to go on a two-week trip to Serbia, one of the lesser visited countries in the Balkan. Serbia was easy to travel and offered some interesting sightseeing such as the Palace of Galerius and colourful monasteries. Finding vegetarian food in Serbia was not too difficult and sometimes it was even tasty.

Sopocani Frescoes, a UNESCO World Heritage in Serbia

October to December – Germany

Most of the autumn, however, we spent in Germany where another spell of writing work kept us occupied. After all, those months of research for various guidebooks still needed to be transformed into text! To keep healthy, we went climbing indoors, and we also did a few excursions. In October, we spent a weekend in Halle, another East German town. Halle’s most important sightseeing spot is the State Museum of Prehistory with its famous Nebra Sky Disk. The small copper disk is about 3600 years old and the oldest known description of cosmic phenomena. It is part of the UNESCO “Memory of the World“ Heritage. In Halle we also went geocaching again, this time in a photogenic abandoned meat factory.

Lost places like the Old Meat Factory in Halle were among our 2023 highlights

The absolute lowlight of the year happened in November when Natascha twisted her knee in an accident in the bouldering gym. She tore her ACL and meniscus, among some other injuries to the knee. Most of them will heal over time, but she needs surgery for the meniscus and the ACL – scheduled later in January. This means at least another two months of recovery time and intensive rehabilitation exercises. And less travelling in 2024.

December – Belgium

Classic view of Cologne Cathedral with the River Rhine and the train bridge, Hohenzollernbrücke

Over Christmas we went to Cologne to see friends and family, and afterwards took a detour to Belgium. For a few days, we explored Liège – great museums and of course waffles! – and Louvain-la-Neuve, a small university town not far from Brussels. Founded only 50 years ago as an entirely planned town, Louvain-la-Neuve is home to the Hergé Museum. Visiting this museum dedicated to the comic book hero Tintin was again one of the highlights of 2023. And we are now reading the albums again (in chronological order).

We concluded the year 2023 at the Herge Museum in Louvaine-la-Neuve

We are thankful for the wonderful trips in 2023 and are looking forward to 2024, Year of the Dragon!

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  1. I envy you for spending more than half of the year travelling! And also, that for this amount of time, you have only taken 10 flights. That’s impressive! From all the destinations you have visited, I think Japan would be the most amazing for me. Maybe this year I’ll end up going, as it seems that all my friends have been there already in 2023. I have been to Austria twice in the past year, but stayed in urban areas rather than explore nature.

    1. Dear Joanna, we try to fly as little as possible. In Europe it is often possible to reach destinations by bus or train – but this way to travel is also time-consuming and uncomfortable quite often. Japan is a great destination – you will like it. Avoid the cherry blossom season – it is really to crowded.

  2. Hello Isa
    well remembering our Japan trip with your so fine and good guidance all the time.
    The photo on the boat with the woman playing the flute was a very impressive moment. We have similar photo and we recognize us.
    Have a good time
    Dagmar and Stefan

  3. Your 2023 sounds like a great year! I really like the fact that you’ve been around for so many nights! I would love to visit Japan, it is on my list for so long – can’t wait to go there!

  4. Wow you had a wonderful and “wanderful” year! I wish I could travel this much but with a baby and living with in-laws, and having a ft job, it’s all become so much difficult than before. I do look forward to a German trip this year. let’s see!

  5. You had an incredible year of travel! I’d love to visit Japan and also Egypt, both countries are fascinating to me. Ours was just local travel in Italy and once to Spain, but I am happy with both and never take travel for granted. The outdoor cheese fondue in Switzerland looks great fun!

  6. What an incredible year for you guys. And to top that your guide books also got published. For long, I have wished to travel the year through and work on the go. But that dream is still a dream! I would love to see the flowers in Japan, stay in wooden light house and see the Nebra Sky Disk in Halle. Thanks to this post, I discovered geocaching. Am now, looking at how it works. Wishing Natascha a speedy recovery.

    1. Dear Ambica, thanks for your comment and good wishes. Yes, we feel very grateful for the life and the work we do. Have a good year too,, filled with a lot of wonderful travels!

  7. I always love looking a posts that look back at the great travel year people have had. I love all the great new UNESCO sites you visited. A great accomplishment to get 4 guidebooks published too! You visited many spots that are on our list to go back to and spend more time. And how great to get two visits to Japan! I am sure 2024 with be an amazing new travel year.

  8. What an incredibly ambitious and adventurous year – I’m amazed at how much time you spent away from home and immersed in traveling. And I’m incredibly jealous you were able to tick off so many UNESCO sites, I’d love to see Le Locle and the Serbian monasteries. But Egypt would be the highlight for me with the time spent along the Nile. I look forward to seeing what wonders you travel to in 2024.

  9. Looks like a great year! I love the big fondue and wouldn’t mind trying it but perhaps not in the scorching heat :-). We recently found a great fondue restaurant here and love it. A return visit to Egypt sounds good to me if only to see the valley of the whales. Here’s to more travels this year!

    1. Dear Kemkem, I would not have thought that there are fondue restaurants in Spain. So what kind of fondue do they offer? Cheese and meat? We were surprised that there are so many varieties of cheese fondue in Switzerland. With tomatoes, with mushrooms, with all different sorts of cheese….in very specific quantities…

  10. I truly enjoyed your look back: Although your stats are so well-structured they don’t feel forced or hectic. Actually, they inspired me to think about my own travel – like how many nights I slept in other beds, how many hours I spent in the air etc. Also, I enjoyed reading the article in Tagesspiegel and to learn so much more about you – and about what inspired you to name your blog westwards – you live, you learn. Regarding the land travel through Eurasia: Do you know the book Übel unterwegs by Tina Übel? She travelled from Hamburg to Shanghai by train a couple of years ago and wrote about it. It’s an entertaining and inspiring read – just like your posts 🙂

    1. Dear Renata, thanks for your friendly comment. I have not heard about the book by Tina Übel – but I will look it up. It sounds interesting. Have a wonderful travel year 2024 and all the best from Berlin!

  11. I just love a great look back on a successful and bountiful travel year. You both did a lot of nice trips. Its great that you took time to explore Austria, the nature is just incredible here. I would love to go back to revisit Egypt and Japan , to immerse in the cultural greatness of those two countries again. Will be looking out for your next trips for 2024.

  12. Wow! This is amazing. 212 nights away from home is so huge. Gosh! That’s more than a year exploring the world. I hope we get the opportunity to do that as well.

    Congratulations on the guidebooks published. Looking forward to reading more about your adventures this 2024.

  13. Westwards, your 2023 travel highlights are an adventure-packed journey! From Egypt’s historical wonders to Japan’s cherry blossoms and serene landscapes, each destination offers a unique experience. The vivid descriptions of places like Wadi al-Hitan and the House of Light in Japan bring your travels to life. Navigating through Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, your explorations blend outdoor adventures, cultural richness, and unexpected culinary delights like the outdoor cheese fondue. The challenges, like Natascha’s knee injury, add a human touch to the narrative. Wishing her a swift recovery and looking forward to more exciting travel tales in 2024! 🌍🗺️🚗

  14. How lucky you got to travel around more than half of 2023! But it’s great to know that you did your research before writing the guidebooks and I know they must be full of details just like your articles. I hope Natascha’s procedure will go well so you can travel more from summer to winter of 2024.

  15. Oh my gosh! I love the photo of you in the fondue pot. Ha! And I can’t believe all the places you went. Such variety! I actually loved the Jungfrau region, but I went in June, so it wasn’t terribly crowded. And going guidebook work must be so fun but tiring. I wish you the best in 2024 and can’t wait to hear next year’s recap!!

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