Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Category: Europe (page 1 of 5)

Kosovo

So back at the beginning of April I traveled from Belgrade Serbia to Pristina Kosovo via bus. Truth be told I was really nervous about this trip. I didn’t know anyone who’d traveled to either countries and there’s not a ton of information available online. What I could find said that the bus was the way to go, so I made my way to the bus station . The bus station in Belgrade looks like every bus station the world over. Once I figured out which bay my bus was boarding from I made my way there, stowed by bag in the underneath compartment and boarded. Once I got on the bus though I couldn’t read the seat number so I stood there kinda clueless until this local man pointed me towards the center part of the bus. Now blocking the row to my seat was this elderly man with wispy greying hair, thick unruly eye brows and a short stature.  He was trying to get his small bag into the compartment above. Turns out he was my seat mate, so I helped him get his bag up and he took the window seat and I had the aisle.

For the next five and a half hours I had the most pleasant conversations with this man. It was one of those experiences you would never, ever get if you didn’t leave the comforts of your own country. Where you just trust in the kindness of strangers, and quickly a person touches your heart. His nick name was “Galle” and he was a pilot in the Yugoslav army back in the day. He was on the way to visit a sick brother who lived in Kosovo, while he lived in Serbia. Thankfully, he spoke some English and so we chatted about history and current world events. He translated his Serbian newspaper articles to me, and tried to teach me the Cyrillic alphabet which was really a hopeless undertaking. We shared our snacks with one another and napped off and on. As the only foreigner many of the surrounding passengers were interested in what Galle and I were chatting about so sometimes he included them by translating our conversation.

Since I was the only tourist on the bus I was the only one who’s passport was stamped at the border- the others traveled on ID cards between the borders- if they had their passports stamped it would be difficult for them to return to Serbia. As with most bus border crossings an employee of the bus collects all the IDs and takes them into the immigration office/booth and then returns them to you once the bus is through the border. At both borders an official boarded the bus and walked the aisle but no one was further questioned. Easy peasy.

Galle later told me that he was meant to travel the following day, but seeing as the weather the next day was supposed to be stormy his son urged him to go today. We both expressed what a blessing it was that he traveled today instead of the next day, otherwise our paths would not have crossed. Once we arrived in Pristina I helped him carry his bag off the bus. He was waiting for a relative to pick him up and I was taking a taxi to my hotel. Before we parted ways I asked him for a selfie. I think this was a first for him, or maybe there was a miss communication because when I got my phone out and bent down to take a picture with him he kissed me on the cheek. So I’ve got this hilarious photo of me laughing and him looking kinda confused. We hugged and parted ways, and my heart felt really full after having such a pleasant journey.

The history of Kosovo, like much of the Balkans is complicated and filled with emotion. 95% of the population of Kosovo are ethnic Albanian Muslims, although Kosovo is a very secular country where people identify as being Muslim but don’t really practice. 1% are Serbs who are Russian Orthodox and the other 4% is Romas, Macedonians, Turks and a variety of other minorities. Kosovo is the youngest country in Europe- it self declared independence in February 2008 making it 10 years old. Since it is self declared it’s kinda a mixed bad as to which countries recognize its sovereignty. Most countries in the EU and more than half of the members of the UN do. Kosovo also has the youngest population in Europe with nearly 40% of its population under the age of 25. This was super evident walking around the streets of Pristina- it had the feeling of being a college town as everyone was very young.

So here’s my very basic explanation of the Kosovo war. The late 1980’s saw increased nationalism amongst ethnic groups in Yugoslavia (what is present day Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Serbia-which had 2 autonomous areas Vojvodina and Kosovo.) People of Yugoslavia identified as either Catholic, Orthodox or Muslim. Increased nationalism led to civil unrest and in the case of Kosovo the Serb minority felt prosecuted by the Albanian majority. This civil unrest though was felt across the entire region and in the early 1990’s Slovenia and Croatia declared independence which led to the collapse of Yugoslavia. The war in Slovenia lasted only 10 days. Croatia was not as lucky. During this time Macedonia also declared independence. The Croat- Bosnian War then broke out in 1992. In 1993 the US got involved in the conflict after Bill Clinton was elected. Sanctions were imposed throughout the region to prevent the further outbreak of war. Peace was made between Croatia and Bosnia in early 1994. Eventually they banded together to fight against Serbia- later they were assisted by NATO.  In Serbia tensions increased in 1996 with the formation of the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) . The Kosovo war started in March of 1998. In 1999 NATO assisted Kosovo forces, and conducted a series of bombings in Serbia which eventually led to the with drawl of Serbian troops. In 2006 Montenegro became independent separating themselves from Serbia.  2 years later with foreign troops still in Kosovo, Kosovo declared its independence. Although as previously stated this is not recognized by many countries. This is obviously a very overly simplified summary of the events. War atrocities were committed though out the region. Thousands of people are still missing. Millions of people were displaced throughout the region from the early 1990’s until the end of the conflict in 1999.

My initial impression of Kosovo was that it was much more run down than Belgrade felt- it’s still very much in the “developing” stage, and the population appeared very young. Also they love the US of A here. I’ve never seen so many American flags outside of 4th of July celebrations in the U.S. This makes total sense seeing as without NATO help the war would’ve likely raged on. I hired a local guide named Bekim the take me around the country, as there were several historical places I wanted to visit. This ended up being the best way to see the country- Bekim has a degree in anthropology and was a wealth of knowledge. If you’re traveling to Kosovo let me know and I’ll forward on his details!

So Bekim and I started the day out driving south from Pristina to the town of Gracanica. This town has a Serbian majority population and there is a moving monument to the 500 Serbs from this area that are still missing. Not noted on the monument are the estimated 700 Albanians from the area that are also still missing. From here we visited the monastery with the same name as the town. It was built in 1321 on the ruins of a 6th century basilica. The monastery itself is really stunning and built in a Byzantine style. No photos were allowed on the inside but there was a church service taking place while we were there so I was able to sneak in and watch. From here we drove south towards the snow capped mountains near the border of Montenegro. The countryside of Kosovo is lovely. It’s green and the air is fresh and it reminded me a lot of driving thru parts of Canada. Next up we visited the Patriarchate of Pec which sits alongside a river. It was built in the 13th century and used to be where the Serbian archbishop resided. Now nuns live there. There are ruins in front of the monastery and mountain views behind it and the whole complex has a peaceful air to it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We then wandered through the old bazaar of Pec and went for a traditional Kosovo lunch which is mostly kebab style meats with vegetables and bread. All very good. Naturally I paired mine with a local Peja pilsner. After lunch we visited a kulla which is a traditional village stone house. It consisted of three floors- the main floor is for the animals and storage, the first floor the living area for the family and the top floor was for visitors and entertaining. We then drove south a bit to Decani Monastery my favourite site of the day. It was built in the early 1300’s and is under the protection of NATO forces and you must show proper ID to enter. During the Kosovo war the monastery was used to shelter refugees. The church is build in the Byzantine style and inside there are over 1000 frescoes including one of Jesus with a sword. While we were there it started to cloud over and rain lightly which added to the tranquility of the monastery. It was a real highlight for me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our last stop was to the city of Prizren which is in the south on the way to Macedonia. Prizren is the second largest city in Kosovo and it’s legit adorable. It reminded me of Turkey and there are postcard worthy views from the old stone bridge that crosses the river with the mosque and fortress in the background. It will blow your Instagram up. For realz. We wandered around the area near to the river and visited a mosque and then stopped off for ice cream before heading back to Pristina. Booking my tour with Bekim was a great way to fit several sites into one day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I then spent one more full day in Pristina where I visited the Kosovo museum which has a lower floor dedicated to ancient history of the region and an upper floor dedicated to Kosovo’s more recent history. I found it very interesting. Then I did what I always do in a new city- I joined a walking tour. On a rain drenched afternoon we visited the Old Town and saw the clock tower, mosque, and bazaar before visiting a traditional home at the Ethnology museum. We then walked over to the newer part of the city and visited the Newborn monument signifying the country’s independence. Across from it is a new monument dedicated to the 20,000 women (and men and children) who were raped in the Kosovo war. We then walked thru the University past the library which if you google it is on many lists of the “ugliest buildings in the world.” And truthfully it is pretty ugly. But that’s just my opinion. We then visited the Mother Teresa Cathedral which is new and huge and way too large for the minority catholic population of the country. The pews have what looks like American eagles on them, but to be fair they could also represent the Albanian flag which also has an eagle on it. Either way it was confusing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My favourite building in Pristina was the highly controversial church called the Christ the Savior Cathedral. It was built illegally on the grounds of the university which is not supposed to have a religious affiliation so the church was never completed. It just stands there like a bombed out building, although it was in fact never bombed, looking eerie and abandoned. Naturally my love of abandoned and decaying buildings had me taking tons of pictures of it, and the sky was stormy that day so it added to the ambiance.

From here I took the bus to Macedonia…..

Belgrade Serbia

Back in April I spent three weeks touring through Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania and Greece. I’m sure some of these sound like really random choices as travel destinations, but I’m a big fan of off the beaten track places, and I really want to visit the few countries in Europe that I’ve yet to see. This is partly why at the time of writing this post I’ve just landed in Kiev, Ukraine after spending a few nights in Minsk, Belarus. Plus I had a flight voucher to use up after the epic mess up of my trip to Djibouti, and guess where FlyDubai flies direct to?? Yep Belgrade so off I went. As a side note one of my embassy friends coined this trip my Red Cross tour of Eastern Europe, mostly because he finds my travel plans entertaining.

As per usual I did very little research about what there was to see in Belgrade. Apart from booking myself into a hotel that was central and walking distance to things, I didn’t really have much planned. My travel style as of late is to just hit the ground and then make a plan as I go, which seems to work well for me. Normally when I’m traveling to a new city I try and join into a free walking tour as soon as possible- this gives me a basic history of the area and walks me past the top tourist destinations. A great way to get my bearings, and figure out what I want to come back and see on my own. So that’s exactly what I did. I arrived to my hotel- went for a lunch (wine) and then joined onto a late afternoon walking tour. I found the architecture in Belgrade to be fascinating. Turn of the century buildings sat juxtaposition next to buildings from the 1960’s. Many buildings were in varying state of disrepair and the whole city is littered with urban art (graffiti) of which I’m a huge fan. The walking tour wound its way through the Bohemian section of the city which is home to many breweries and night clubs, past the city’s one mosque and then through Kalemegdan Park and Belgrade Fortress.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Funfacts: Belgrade is one of the oldest cities in the world- the first settlers in this area were by the Celts in the 3rd century BC. Serbia was under Ottoman control for nearly 400 years until the Austrians took control of the region in the 1900’s. Belgrade was bombed 4 times since the First World War and rebuilt each time- the most recent bombing was in 1999 by NATO during the Kosovo War. There are still protests regarding Kosovo and the US’s part in the NATO bombings with signs outside of the Parliament building. The city is built at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers- there are excellent views overlooking this from the Fortress.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Probably the most iconic building in the city is the Saint Sava Church. It’s a massive church complex with green domed roofs. The inner sanctuary was under construction when I was there, but the roof was visible and painted in gold- this building reminded me a lot of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Below the sanctuary is the crypt. And this is what you’re really here for people because I’m pretty sure you’ve never seen anything quite like it. Now I didn’t count but I reckon there are like 100+ paintings of saints and religious figures. All gold and flashy and bedazzled. It’s ornate and gaudy at the same time, and reminded me of being in a train station with these arched hallways. Totally worth seeing. I did an underground tour while in Belgrade that took us to a Roman well which served as a dungeon at one time, an underground bunker from Josip Bronz Tito’s time (the former President of Yugoslavia), an old Austrian gun powder storage room which used to house a night club and now holds old Roman artifacts, and lastly an underground tavern and wine cellar. On this tour I met two American teachers who lived in Albania who I would later meet up with! That’s the great thing about travel- you’ll end up with new friends scattered around the globe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The other cool thing I did in Belgrade was a private walking tour with Olivera from  Still in Belgrade tours. I was really keen to see the many large urban art murals that are painted on the side of buildings around the city and to just wander with a local. One of their tours is called a Hipster tour-so naturally I was sold. We wandered down near the waterfront to the Savamala area which used to be industrial space before artists moved in and cleaned up the area. We visited the contentious waterfront project by a UAE investor who basically bought up waterfront property to turn into a high end apartment, shopping and hotel area. Think Dubai Mall meets eastern Europe. I was not a fan, but we did end up as extras to some TV production that was filming there when we accidentally walked on set trying to find the exit. Hello Hollywood!!  We walked to an area of the city called Lower Dorcal that’s full of coffee shops and urban spaces. Since you know I’m a bit of a foodie I’ll make one restaurant recommendation in the event you go to Belgrade. Visit Homa restaurant. Do the tasting menu paired with local wines. It’s phenomenal. The menu while I was there consisted of tuna tartare, pork belly, adriatic squid to name a few of the small plates. All expertly paired with wine from the region. Worth every penny. Bon appetit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Belgrade, Serbia I was planning to travel to Pristina, Kosovo via bus. Travel between the two countries is tricky as Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo’s independence. In fact maps in Serbia show Kosovo as belonging to Serbia. It should be said that if you are planning to travel to Kosovo on the same trip as visiting Serbia you must visit Serbia first. It’s easy to travel from Serbia into Kosovo, but not the other direction without first going into say Macedonia, Montenegro or Albania. Of course there are conflicting reports- I’ve read blog posts about people who have gone the opposite direction and Serbian border officials just crossed out the Kosovo visa in their passport. I didn’t want to take that risk which is why I started my trip in Serbia and then traveled into Kosovo. For some reason I was really worried about taking the bus into Kosovo, but it ended up being far easier than I could’ve imagined. The hardest part was buying the bus ticket in Belgrade which mostly involved me getting lost on the way to the station, but luckily at a crosswalk I met this Serbian student who was also going to buy a bus ticket and she was able to translate for me to buy my ticket. Next up……Kosovo.

Photos from Split Croatia

I can’t believe that I’ve been back in Saudi Arabia for a full year, as of last month. If I’m being honest if feels like much longer than that as I’ve packed a lot in during those 12 months. In an attempt to get somewhat caught up on blogging I decided that the fastest way to share with you some of the places I visited over the last year would be to do a few photography posts. One of the places that I really enjoyed was spending a few days last April solo in Split Croatia. April was the perfect time to go as the temperatures were moderate and the crowds weren’t as crazy as they are peak season. Of course if you are going to Croatia solely to use the beaches April would be too cold, and I’d recommend going late May to September.

My time in Split was spend mostly wandering Diocletian Palace. I especially loved the underground parts of the palace as they filled my love of things decaying and abandoned. I sipped cappuccinos on the waterfront, exploring the piazzas and back alleyways taking in the ornate statues and detail in the architecture. Enjoy!

Split Promenade

The bell tower of Saint Domnius

The hidden Church of Saint Martin

Peristyle Square

The Vestibule looking up at Saint Domnius

The cellars of Diocletian Palace

Looking out over the Old Town

In the cellars of Diocletian Palace

Looking into the Vestibule

Stormy skies over the Old Town

The beautiful National Theater building

Sunset along the Promenade

My Top 10 from 2017

Every year I try to do a post about my favourite travel destinations of the past year. So in keeping with tradition I’ve compiled a list of my top 10 travels from 2017. In many ways it feels like the past year flew by, and then at the same time there were some months that looking back at them moved by achingly slow. I fit in a lot of travel this year. I shared a lot of great memories. I nursed myself through a heartbreak. I connected with a cousin I didn’t really know I had and visited her twice this year. I almost delivered a baby on a plane. I drove a rickshaw in Ethiopia. I was flown from Georgia to Bahrain in business class on a flight were I was the only passenger. I’ve made some very dear friends this past year- that has probably been the biggest blessing for me. While the travel was great- the actual human interactions I had are the thing that stands out the most.

In 2017 I visited 18 countries not including Saudi Arabia. 12 of them new to me. I took 38 international flights, which for someone terrified of flying is no easy feat. I traveled solo, with a tinder date, with my Kiwi sidekick, to see my cousin and then home for a few weeks. I traveled by plane, bus, boat, rickshaw and car. So without further delay here’s my 2017 travel recommendations in chronological order…..

1. Croatia

Croatia is stunning. In April I spent a week in Dubrovnik with a fella I met on tinder a month before I left for Saudi Arabia. He was a great travel partner and I would happily have him be my travel side kick again- he was only mildly irritated when I asked him to take the hundreth posed picture of me in a row.  And he was pretty much down to do and eat where ever I wanted- what more can you ask for in a travel companion?! After a week in Dubrovnik he flew back to Canada and I spent a few days in Split solo exploring the city. As I previously blogged Dubrovnik is a great base to visit nearby Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina on separate day trips. We spent our time in Dubrovnik exploring the Old City, taking tons of postcard worthy pictures and sipping Croatia’s delicious wines. I would highly recommend to avoid both Dubrovnik and Split during the peak tourist season. We were there in April and it was the beginning of the cruise ships- I would have been highly irritated if we had gone when the reportedly 10,000 daily cruisers get dropped in the Old Town (although reportedly they are capping this number at 8,000 in 2018.)

My favourite thing that we did while in Croatia was explore the nearby abandoned resort Town of Kupari just south of Dubrovnik. I love abandoned places and it was super cool to be able to wander through these large empty hotels and take pictures. It had that eerie beauty to it, and it was very easy to imagine what it must’ve looked like in their prime time. We also visited the nearby town of Cavtat which has a very cute water front and some delicious restaurants. The Croatian coastline is spectacular.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. Switzerland

2017 was a lot about Europe for me. Seeing as Frankfurt is a direct flight from Riyadh and has easy connections to just about every large European city it’s pretty easy to make a long weekend into a trip to Europe. My Kiwi sidekick and I opted for Switzerland seeing as neither of us had ever been and we were traveling in May which made for perfect weather there. We stayed in Geneva where we strolled the cobble stoned lanes, ate our weight in cheese fondue,  and stumbled upon Camino signs which only solidified me knowing that I want to walk the Camino de Santiago again. One of the coolest things we did though was take a day trip to nearby Mont Blanc in the Swiss Alps.

Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in the Alps range and the highest in Europe. We did a bus trip to the French town of Chamonix and from there we took two gondolas to the top of the mountain. I’m scared of heights and being confined to a small car packed with people dangling from a cable from the top of a mountain was moderately terrifying. Both Kiwi and I rode most of the way with our eyes closed performing lamaze child birth breathing techniques. But once up top the views were stunning. We even concurred our fear of heights by walking out into this glass floored room that’s 1035 meters off the ground.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan was one of the countries that surprised me the most last year. I had no idea what to expect and it actually blew me away. It had a Middle Eastern vibe, but felt very European. The buildings were very European but accented with Islamic architectural features. I felt totally comfortable traveling there solo, and it was pretty easy to get there from Riyadh as it’s a direct flight from Dubai to the capital Baku. Some of you may never have heard of this country (and I’ve yet to properly blog about) but I’ll tell you a few helpful facts. Azerbaijan borders both Europe and Asia and is a predominantly Muslim country, but it felt the least religious of all the Muslim countries I have traveled to. It is in the Caucasus region and borders the countries of Georgia, Armenia, Russia, Iran and Turkey, and Baku is on the Caspian Sea. The phrase “the old meets the new” or the “east meets the west” are very fitting in relation to Azerbaijan.

I spent two nights in Baku which was the perfect amount of time to see the city. The Old Town in Baku is really cool. The buildings are of an architectural style I had never seen before with double story homes with very ornate wooden balconies. I would later see this same style in Georgia. I wandered the Old Town and climbed the Maiden Tower which has a great panorama view of the city from the top. I strolled the walkways near Nizami square soaking in the sunshine and fresh air. I walked the corniche overlooking the Caspian Sea. One evening I walked over to Sahidler Xiyabani Park with is a really ornately decorated park that has amazing views overlooking the city, and also perfect views of the iconic Flames Towers. There is an impressive nightly light show on the Flames Towers featuring flames, and running water, and the Azerbaijani flags. If you’re looking for somewhere a little off the tourist track and an easy long weekend trip from Riyadh I would highly recommend Azerbaijan!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Georgia

The country. Not the state. Just to be clear. If I had to rank these countries in order of my favourites Georgia would’ve been at the top of my list. Georgia first landed on my radar after seeing a friend’s picture from a trip she and her boyfriend took. Or more specifically a single view from a balcony of a hotel at a range of mountains that I later researched to be the country of Georgia. I was determined to wake up to that same view one day. I spent a week solo in Georgia. A couple nights in the capital of Tbilisi before retreating for the mountain views of Kazbegi that had inspired my trip, and then a night at the end back in Tbilisi. The best decision I made while in Georgia was to hire a guide/driver from Instagram. At first it sounds a little sketchy- having some youngish guy pick you up a night from the airport in a country you’ve never been to as a solo woman traveler. But, I’m a big believer in listening to your gut. And my gut said that Zuka was legit- and in fact he was. Zuka would be my sidekick over the next week. He drove me around, told me the history of the region, and we rocked out to Enrique Inglasias’s song “Bailando” quite likely 100 times.

Zuka drove me to the famous Jvari Monastery, to the wine region of Kakheti, and later into the mountain region of Kazbegi close to the Russian border where I spend 3 days taking in the most stunning mountain views and watching the changing weather. I spent time in Tbilisi and was mesmerized by the graffiti art around the city. If you are a foodie at all I would highly recommend adding Georgia to your list. Georgian food is fantastic- my favourite was the Georgian Salad made of cucumbers, tomatoes, with a walnut paste and Khinkali which are pork dumplings. And trust me- Georgian wine is amazing. If you go be sure to use Zuka– tell him I sent you, and be sure to listen to a little Enrique or whatever music is trendy when you go!

The icing on the cake of my trip to Azerbaijan and Georgia was turning up to the airport to fly back to Riyadh and getting upgraded to business class and then coming to find out that not only was I upgraded, but that I was the only passenger on the entire flight. It will be difficult to ever top that travel experience!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. Ethiopia

Ethiopia was definitely the most exciting trip I took this year in terms of things just generally not going as plan but still working out in the end. From the get go this trip was a hot mess. Our flight was delayed in Riyadh for 8 hours. 8 hours after we had already been awake for nearly 24hours. Then there was a medical emergency where a woman was in questionable labour and didn’t speak English. We assessed her and kept her comfortable and for landing she and I were moved up to Business class. I had instructed her via a Swahili translator that if she were to feel like her water broke or that she was bleeding she was to squeeze my arm. Literally as the plane touches down she squeezes my arm. So here we are taxiing to the gate and I’m under her dress assessing her. Thankfully she was neither bleeding, nor did her water break and she could still feel the baby moving. In the midst of all this excitement my kiwi sidekick proudly told me she knew the Swahili word for Giraffe. Not super helpful!!

Three of our four flight legs were delayed that trip. Ethiopia Air is a bit of a scheduling disaster and I wouldn’t fly with them again unless there were zero other options. My Kiwi mate lost consciousness likely due to altitude in the town of Lalibela. That was medical emergency numero 2 of the trip. One minute she’s saying she doesn’t feel well, the next she’s laying on the floor. The greatest disappointment of the trip though was our Ethiopian attempt at wine tasting. We literally drove 3-4 hours each way to go wine tasting at a French winery only to be told that there was in fact no wine to taste. I nearly cried. Ok. I might’ve actually cried.

It wasn’t all bad though. Ethiopia is an intriguing country with amazing food. It’s colourful and vibrant. The rock churches of Lalibela are amazing and totally worth the effort it took to get there. We were even able to convince our tour guide in Lalibela to organize us a tour by auto rickshaw in which I was the driver and he was happy to comply. He proudly told us that I was the first westerner to driver Bajaj (rickshaw) in the history of Lalibela. We spent time exploring Addis Ababa and even got to meet up with one of the housekeepers that I work with here in Saudi.  She and her family took us out for dinner and I oogled their cute kids and we decided I would take one to Canada- but then we decided Canada was far too cold for them. Ethiopia was both extremes- frustrating beyond belief at times, and then totally rewarding and heart filling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6. Austria

I’d previously been to Austria twice before. Once way back in 2010 to Vienna, and then in 2016 to Salzburg with my mom. Both times I loved the food and especially the wine. In August I visited Bratislava Slovakia and then traveled by boat up the river Danube to Vienna and later onward to Slovenia. The main reason I was stopping off for a night was to meet up with a cousin I had only really learned about the month before. Her mom and my Dad were cousins so I guess we are second cousins- although after meeting her she feels very much like a first cousin to me. I stayed right near St Stephen’s Cathedral which is beautiful and my room had rooftop views over the city.

Even though I was only there one night I had really wished I had the time to stay another couple nights. My cousin and I went for a traditional Austrian meal and she toured me around the city on foot pointing out the important buildings and telling me the history of the city. We sipped delicious Austrian wine at a rooftop bar and tried to piece together our family history. And best of all we made plans to ensure our paths would cross again….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7. Slovenia

I’d long wanted to visit Lake Bled- it’s on many people’s favourite places they’ve traveled to list, so I had to see if it held up to the hype. I spent 8 days in Slovenia split between its capital city of Ljubljana and three nights of total relaxation at Lake Bled. Ljubljana is a great city- it’s small and easy to navigate, if felt totally safe as a female traveler and there’s enough to see to fill a few days. Oh, and of course the food and wine is really good. It’s pretty touristy and it being the summer it was pretty packed, but the temperature was perfect for evening strolling while eating gelato (a favourite past time of mine). I did a couple free walking tours while there. As I’ve previously mentioned many, many times I’m a huge fan of taking part in free walking tours. They are offered in almost every major city- they’re a great way to get your bearings by walking a city by foot, learning the history of the region, meeting other travelers and they are cheap. While not exactly free the guides work off of tips- I’m happy to give them the equivalent of $10 US for someone to walk me around for 2-3hours telling animated tales. Always money well spent. If you are only in a city for a short period of time I’d always recommend joining a walking tour. Make sure to visit the central market in Ljubljana as there’s tons of delicious food, and during the warmer months there’s an outdoor food festival on Fridays called “Open Kitchen.” They serve international food and alcohol and it’s great fun to sit outside sampling different food.

After spending a night in Ljubljana I took the bus to Lake Bled for 3 nights. This part of my trip was a bit of a splurge and I had booked myself a room with a balcony over looking the lake, facing towards the castle. I spent my time walking the 6km lake path, climbing up to the castle which had postcard worthy views of the lake and town below and taking boat tours around the lake. In the evenings I would sit on my balcony sipping wine, reading a book and  watching the magnificent sunsets. I would look up every paragraph or so to see the sky changing colours. Deepening. Each moment more beautiful than the one before. Watching as the light sparkled across the lake. The yellow brightening into orange then into pink and then into a light mauve. The sky looked like it was expanding. As the sky fell darker the last bits of light faded the castle on the opposite cliff grew brighter- its windows illuminated from within as the last bit of sun slipped away. Those sunsets were my favourite part of being in Slovenia. Lake Bled is a very romantic place and would be a great place to take a partner, but equally so if you’re looking to clear your head and relax which was exactly why I was there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8. Estonia

In October I flew into Helsinki Finland and made my way down thru Estonia, to Latvia and then Lithuania before flying to Berlin to meet up with my cousin. Estonia was a place I’d heard a lot about this past year. If you’re into travel at all then you also have probably heard a lot about Estonia, specifically about the city of Tallinn which has been an up and coming travel destination. I spend a couple nights in Helsinki and then took the ferry to Tallinn. The ferry to Tallinn is more of a booze cruise for the Finns. They go over to Estonia where the booze are cheaper and stock up. The ferry itself is only about four hours. It’s super easy to get between the two countries. I’m used to ferries in Canada or the US. They are low key, relaxing type of sailing. Often you sit and watch the view from the windows or go to the upper decks for some fresh air. Ferries in this part of the world are really more of a cruise entertainment experience. There’s singing and choreographed dance moves. There was also a stuffed mascot that was involved in the dancing. While waiting for the ferry to board I was approached by a couple. They were Finnish and very, very drunk. And/or possibly on meth- it was hard to say. He was a little overly friendly and started chatting me up. Being the polite Canadian I was I answered and the following conversation ensued……. Him “Where are you from?” Me “Canada.” Him “Hmmm never heard of it.” So I then told him that I lived in the Middle East and was here on vacation. He then started yelling “BOMB.” Quite loud while pointing at my suitcase and then he started laughing. I was mortified and thankful no one nearby was taking him serious. He then tried to hug me and he and his lady then proceeded to overshare their entire life stories. How they met, how many kids they had, how much alcohol they planned to buy. The ship literally could not board fast enough. I kept thinking that at some point I was likely going to get pick pocketed, but that didn’t happen. They were just very friendly Finns. I managed to lose them in the crowd as we boarded, but later saw them going into the Duty Free. He winked at me and waved.

So I arrived in Tallinn Estonia on a cold autumn afternoon after being mistaken for a terrorist. I had booked a cute AirBnb in the Old Town and it was perfect for my three night stay. Tallinn is a very charming city. The Old Town is cobble stoned and easily walkable and you could easily picture yourself walking there 200 years ago. Because I was there during the off season that meant less tourists, and that it was pretty easy to get a table in some of the citiy’s best restaurants. If you are a foodie then add Tallinn to your list. There are so many great restaurants there. My favourite was Restoran O (But the “O” has those two little dots above it that my keyboard won’t let me type.) They had an amazing tasting menu with a wine pairing and all the dishes are from local foods influenced by the Island of Saaremaa the largest island in Estonia.

The second day I was there I joined a walking tour that wound it’s way thru the city to some very scenic overlooks all the while learning the history of the country. Estonia most recently became independent in 1991. The language is similar to Finnish or Hungarian and they are not gender specific. Also they have no future tense so instead of saying phrases like “in the future” they say “in 5 months time.” Also a large percentage of Estonians are atheists. That’s all the fun facts I can remember right now. You’re welcome. There is also a very cool part of town that has an urban industrial feel and is full of artists, graffiti and bars and restaurants. It’s called Kalamaya and it’s an easy walk from the Old Town. It would be a shame to visit Tallinn and not leave the Old Town as the city has much more to offer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9. Latvia

After Tallin Estonia, I traveled to Riga Lativa on a one way tour bus that was really like a day tour with stop offs on the way between the two cities. This was a great way to see the countryside as it was October the leaves were changing colour and the air was crisp. Fall is my favourite season hands down. En route from Tallin to Riga we stopped off at small villages to walk around and wander thru some old castle ruins and then hiked up to some caves that were made of sandstone. Leave it to me to walk 700Km across Spain without falling only to walk like 1km on a muddy path in Latvia to make a massive spectacle of myself. As it turns out I don’t have nearly the cat like reflexes I had previously convinced myself I had. I realized this whilst laying on my back in a muddy puddle. Mud in my hair and covering most of my jeans I opted not to change into the only other clean pair of pants I had, lest I repeat the same incident.

We arrived in Riga in the rain and in the dark, but it being a weekend the city was just getting started. It was gearing up for the bachelor parties and mayhem that would later spill out of the bars onto the main street. The city felt vibrant and full of energy. The following morning I joined…. you guessed it….a walking tour of the Old Town. Riga is known to have one of the largest amounts of Art Nouveau architecture in the world. I’m a big fan of this style of architecture and I had a great time walking out of the Old Town to the nearby neighbourhoods where the vast majority of these buildings are located. The Old Town of Riga though is lovely. The alleys are cobble stoned and quaint, there are several open squares, and you can see the remnants of the old city walls. Interspersed with exploring the city on foot I took many stops for cappuccinos and of course wine. In fact one of the best places I came across that trip was a place called “Easy Wine” in the Old Town. It was a wine bar that had like 60 different kinds of wine in a vending machine. Wine. Vending Machine. Sounds like heaven to me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10. Germany

Germany was another place I’d been to a few times. I went to Munich for Oktoberfest a few years back and visited the Christmas Market in Frankfurt two winters ago. I ended my trip to the Balkans in Berlin for two reasons. First, my cousin was living there (the one I had met in Vienna in August) and I was keen to spend more time with her. The second reason was that I wanted to get a tattoo covered and I had found an artist I really liked who was in Berlin. I spent four nights there with no real plan other than to hang out with my cousin and get my new tattoo. Other then that I just wanted to spend some time outside walking the city and eating good food. Luckily my cousin is very knowledgeable about WWII history so she walked me around the city explaining to me the history and pointing out important sites. We walked the East West gallery which has urban art painted on portions of the Berlin Wall. We visited the Mauerpark market which sells a little bit of this and a little bit of that and was insanely packed with uber trendy hipsters. My cousin introduced me to curry wurst which pairs great with beer and are basically sausages in a curry ketchup sauce. Fun fact: you can walk all over town sipping your beer. No one will say a dang thing about it.

I loved all the different neighbourhoods and how walkable the city was. I’m a big fan of big cities and I really liked Berlin. I was also lucky enough to be there during the Festival of Lights where there were different light installations spread across the city with evening shows. I’m pretty sure Berlin will be a city that I’ll return to- most likely in the spring when my cousin is back there as I’d love to explore some more and spend some time with her!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So that’s some of what I got up to in 2017. I ended the year by ringing in my birthday in Bahrain. 2018 is starting to take shape and I’ve got some plans in the works. As always I’m still not exactly sure when my final exit from Saudi Arabia will be. Right now I’m just taking it day by day. In a couple weeks I’m going to Luxor Egypt for a long weekend which has been something I’ve wanted to do the last couple years. Hot air ballooning over the Valley of the Kings is on my bucket list so I’m pretty pumped. I’m looking into going to the Louvre in Abu Dhabi in early February and then flying to Djibouti with my kiwi sidekick for a few days. Many of you reading this are probably like hold up did she just make up another country again? No. Djibouti is next to Somalia and according to the Lonely Planet otherwise known as my travel bible, Djibouti is its 4th pick for up and coming country in 2018. After that I don’t have anything set in stone. I’d like to visit the “Stans” in the spring. Specifically Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan. Something really off the beaten path for a few weeks. That’s all from me. I hope 2018 is starting off as a good one for you all, and I hope this post gives you some new ideas for your upcoming adventures!

 

 

 

36 Hours in Helsinki……

Last month I spent 2 weeks traveling solo from Helsinki Finland thru Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and then ending with a few days in Berlin. Prior to going my immune system was not great and a combination of back to back traveling, taking on some new roles at work and just being generally run down resulted in me getting sick the couple days before I left. Truth be told I wasn’t especially jazzed to be going on this trip- the thought of spending 2 weeks in my bed was sounding pretty great (insert pitty party here). Thankfully though, as soon as my feet hit Finnish soil (and I checked into my swank hotel) I was out of my funk and ready to see what Helsinki had to offer. A couple years ago I spent a bit of time in northern Finland- specifically Lapland where Santa lives, but never got a chance to see Helsinki.

Helsinki is hella expensive as is most of Scandinavia. Basically it’s kinda in between Paris and Iceland in terms of expensive. The trade off though is that even though things like food cost a lot, I never had a bad meal. I spent 2 nights in Helsinki- basically landing early afternoon and then leaving early 2 days later- so I really only had a day and a half to explore. I stayed in the city center meaning that I was easy walking distance to the water and to shopping and a few churches and sites that I wanted to see. After checking into my hotel I wandered towards the water and found that there was a fish market where boats lined the harbour and sold local pickled varieties of fish from the backs of the boats. The air was crisp and smelled salty like the sea and that was all it took to get me out of my travel funk. That first afternoon I walked along the waterfront and went to the Central Market. The Central Market has a wine store, coffee shops and places to buy fresh fish, as well as places to buy fish sandwiches and oysters. It’s pretty awesome. I then walked up to Uspenski Cathedral an Orthodox cathedral from the late 1800’s. Later I visited the nearby Helsinki Cathedral which is up a steep flight of stairs. The outside is much cooler than the inside. I went at sunset which made for some great pictures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next day I spent part of the morning organizing a ferry ticket for the following day to take me from Helsinki to Tallinn Estonia (more on this in an upcoming post). Seeing as it was the beginning of October, the weather was chilly, rainy and pretty windy. The one great thing about traveling at this time of year is that the leaves had just started to change colours so it was a beautiful landscape of reds, oranges and yellows. I decided to take a ferry to the nearby island of Suomenlinna- the ferry takes about 20min to get to the island and the views of the Helsinki skyline off the back of the ferry are amazing. I stood outside in the chilly air taking in the scenery. Suomenlinna is a fortress, some parts of it from the 1700’s and it is now a UNESCO heritage site. The island itself is free- you just have to pay for the ferry to and from. There is a residential portion of the island (actually it’s comprised of 6 linked islands) as well as cafes, and museums. I spend my time wandering the main path that wound past the church, past the fortress structures and past a hidden beach. I took tons of photos of the changing leaves that lined the walkways. After a coffee to warm up I took the ferry back to Helsinki and had a late lunch at the Central Market. Fresh salmon sandwiches with a glass of chilled white wine never disappoint.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even though I’m not especially religious I wanted to visit two religious-y places while in Helsinki so I walked over to the Temppeliaukio (rock church). I’d seen pictures of this church which is built into a rock wall and has a copper dome roof and a skylight that lets in natural light. Architecturally it’s a really cool building, and has a sense of peacefulness inside it once you get past the clicks of all the people taking pictures. The second place I wanted to visit was Kamppi Chapel- a chapel built for the sole purpose of silence in the middle of a busy shopping area. The building itself is iconic- it’s a very modern design and the inner sanctuary is curved and built to block out the outside noise. Of course interspersed between doing some sightseeing and walking in the brisk autumn air I was eating good food and drinking delicious wine. My first night there I had an amazing meal of fettuccine with prawns in a lobster butter sauce. So damn good. The next night I ate at a different Italian restaurant that had a mozzarella bar. Mozzarella cheese soaked in a bunch of different sauces or oil. Not very healthy but totally tasty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So that’s a quick 36 hours in Helsinki. Next blog post I’ll tell you about one of my new favourite cities: Tallinn Estonia. I’m currently writing this sitting on the couch of my bestfriend’s house in Seattle while she is baking some sweets for Thanksgiving. Next weekend I’ll be flying back to Saudi where I’ll be thru the Christmas holidays. No white Christmas for me. Happy Thanksgiving to my Yankee peeps!

Camino Memories

A year ago today is a day that will be implanted in my memories forever. For two reasons…..first it’s my Pops birthday, and secondly because a year ago today we finished our Camino. If you’ve been reading my blog then you know last year I walked almost the entire length of Spain with my Pops. We started our pilgrimage in St Jean Pied de Port and walked over the Pyrenees walking to Santiago de Compostela about 100km from the Atlantic Ocean. I had purposely planned for us to arrive into Santiago on the 29th of October so we would be issued our Camino certificates on Pops birthday. And so that’s exactly what we did.

The night before we stayed in a town called Lovacolla on the outskirts of the Santiago airport about 11km to the Santiago Cathedral. We woke up early as we had plans to arrive in Santiago by mid morning. The Camino had other plans for us though. We left before the sun was up and started out in the pitch black of the early morning hours. This was pretty much the only time we got lost on the Camino and we spend the better part of an hour scouting out the famous yellow arrows we’d spend the last five weeks following. With our headlamps on we just couldn’t make sense of where we had lost the trail and we back tracked and wandered around trying to get our bearings. I have a way over active imagination so being in the woods in the dark is the setting for a horror movie I wanted no part of. We eventually ended up coming across a yellow arrow and were finally on our way.

We made it into Santiago a little before 12pm and went directly to get our Camino credential and to store our bags. On the way to the pilgrims mass we ended up running into 2 older Japanese/American ladies who we had crossed paths with several times and made plans to meet up later. Somehow we confused the Museum for the Cathedral and attempted to go to mass there- the employee thought this was hilarious. We finally got ourselves sorted and took in the  traditional pilgrims mass and then in honour of Pops birthday I had booked us for lunch at Casa Marcelo, a Michelin starred restaurant. It was the bomb. Seriously such a great meal. After several glasses of wine we day drunkenly made our way back to pick up our bags and head to the hotel. En route we ran into an Australian guy we had meet a couple weeks before. I refer to him as Dr Bob. While not a doctor he gave me blister advice and helped Pops with his shin splints so he will always be affectionately known as Dr Bob to me. He and Pops shared the same birthday so we made plans to meet up a couple hours later at the cathedral.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At 5pm we wandered to the Cathedral and met up with Dr Bob who had 3 plastic cups and a bottle of red wine and we sat on the cold stone out front catching up and watching other pilgrims arrive. Within very little time we were reunited with several pilgrims we knew- some Americans, a fellow Canadian, another Australian, a girl from the Netherlands, and Swiss guy. We took a ton of pictures in front of the Cathedral and wandered off to find something to eat as a group. A few of us later went for dinner and then out to this bizarre bar with a live jazz band where one of the dudes was very clearly on some type of drugs, but nonetheless an amazing musician. We drank beer and listened to the band play and Pops had a very special day.

For obvious reasons this will always be a day that stands out in my memories of our time on the Camino. There was a huge sense of accomplishment, but also of sadness that the Camino was over. That we had walked nearly 700km over 5 weeks, and that the walk was over. A few days later we would leave Spain and return to Paris. As I’ve mentioned before not a single day has passed in the last year that I haven’t longed to be back on the Camino, the sun coming up, the wind gently blowing, and my feet carrying me across nearly an entire country. So for now I’ll just rely on my memories until I walk again.

And a very Happy Birthday to Pops who I’ll be seeing next week. Can’t wait!!!

Camino Anniversary

Today marks my Camino anniversary. A year ago today Pops and I woke up filled with anxiety and excitement in the town of St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees mountains. We ate a typical Camino breakfast of toast with jam, coffee and juice and we packed up and headed out in the mid mourning hours. We stopped off in a small church and I said a prayer for safety for the journey that lay ahead. I’m not especially religious, but I would repeat this habit in countless churches spanning the whole of Spain. Mostly asking for a safe journey, a quiet mind and an open heart. We crossed the main bridge leading out of town, stopping to take a selfie. Well two selfies really, because Pops has this uncanny ability to look completely surprised in almost every photo. The second one he looks slightly less surprised. We followed the bronzed metal markers that dot the streets leading up the hill outside of the town. These markers then turned  into wooden signs or spray painted arrows that we would follow for the next 5 weeks westward across Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostela.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spent the next several hours climbing. That first day was only 8km but we would climb 600m into the hills to our first nights stay at Orisson. Those first 3-4km I referred to in my journal as deceiving. They didn’t seem that hard, but the last 4km were very steep. I had trained very little for our Camino- mostly because it was difficult to do much hiking in the months leading up to it on account of living in Saudi Arabia where the temperatures were still extremely hot to be hiking outside, and that mostly everywhere is flat. I had trained with my pack on a treadmill. The conditions going over the Pyrenees were nothing like walking on an incline on a treadmill. First off I had no idea that my feet would get so sweaty. My shoes it turned out were not especially breathable, and it only took me about 4km to start to develop blisters. Yep 4km. Those blisters would haunt me the next 450km all the way to Leon where I finally broke down and bought new shoes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The scenery that first day was mesmerizing as the town of St Jean disappeared and we slinked up the hillside. The hillsides layered against one another forming a sort of tapestry with the differing hues of green and browns of the hills playing against the bright blue sky. Pops was extremely patient with me as we stopped numerous times to tend to my feet. Cows passed us, as did other pilgrims. We sat on a log and ate some nuts and hydrated. Further up the path we stopped at a scenic overlook where 20-30 buzzards were gliding in circles on the air current with the Pyrenees in the distance. A little further we came to a flattened area and then a small downhill that dropped us at our refuge for the night. It was mid afternoon by the time we arrived and we dropped our bags in our room. We were lucky enough to arrive and be given one of the only private rooms for the night. We then went and ordered a well deserved beer. If I close my eyes I can still feel how crisp and refreshing that beer at Orisson was. We sat outside looking at the view and eventually made our way to shower and wash our sweaty clothes and lay them out to dry for the following day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We chatted with fellow pilgrims. We were all bonded together by this shared journey that we were embarking on. Walking quite literally into the unknown. We shared our first of many communal meals that night. Something that would become one of my favourite parts of the Camino. Little did we know that this band of characters would become the backdrop of our Camino experience. How our paths would cross and intersect and we would get news about some of these people days later by way of the Camino grapevine. There were the 2 Irish sisters. The Korean girl who we would see many times throughout our Camino. The 2 older ladies from Quebec. The loud Texans- a couple celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary and their uber fit daughter and son in law. And then there was the older American man who talked loudly into his phone. The first time we laid eyes on him he was having an animated conversation and Pops and I looked at each other as if to say “bloody Americans.” His name was Richard and he played a huge role in our Camino. We would walk countless days together. Sometimes in a group, sometimes solo but in sight on one another, sometimes with other pilgrims. We would later learn that the person on the other end of the phone was his wife Sherri and over the next 5 weeks we would be invited into the calls with her. Richard is also one of my best Camino memories and a true Camino blessing. So many of my funniest Camino memories involve him. A personal favourite was when Pops and I were waiting for him at the top of a steep hill and Richard made his way over the crest holding his phone against his ear yelling “Taxi!!” Richard was the best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In honour of this anniversary I thought I’d make mention of the many, many things I miss about walking the Camino. Because truthfully not a day goes by that I don’t think about it and long for the sound of crunching gravel under my feet, the wind blowing against my face, and the quiet sounds of nature.

-I miss being outside as the sun is coming up. Watching the changing light and colours as the sky lit up. Almost every day of those 5 weeks I saw the sunrise. It would rise behind us lighting up the path in front of us casting shadows of our silhouettes. I would stop and take picture after picture spaced out by a few minutes, each picture more stunning than the last.

-I miss the simplicity of the journey. Walk. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. Except it was more like wake up- eat some type of breakfast. Walk. Second breakfast and cappuccino. Walk. Lunch. Walk. Beer. Shower. Dinner. Wine. Sleep. Or something like that….

-I miss the introspection. The quietness of being alone with my thoughts. Having the ability to tune the outside world out. Walking the Camino is like being insulated inside a bubble. You end up being disconnected from the outside world.

-I love seeing the world at walking pace. There is something to be said about crossing a country powered by your own two feet. I’ve always been a fan of slow motion travel and not much is slower than a walkers pace. You observe things you would otherwise miss traveling by car or train. You take note of things like the smell of wildflowers or the texture of a fern. It’s really something to turn around and look at the landscape behind you to see how far you’ve come.

-The people. Pops and I met so many lovely people. The Camino has a way of leveling people so that it really doesn’t matter what your income is or what your education level is or what your job is. Literally no one cares. What they care about is your reasons for walking. Your observations and experiences. How your feet are doing. I loved meeting people from so many different countries. In fact our last night in Santiago we met up with fellow pilgrims we had crossed paths with from the U.S, Canada, Netherlands, Korea, Australia and Switzerland. A whole new group of international friends.

-As I’ve mentioned I loved the evening pilgrims communal dinners. It was such a fun way to unwind after a long days walking. It also didn’t hurt that the wine was refillable. By now you know how much I love wine. And Spanish wine is very drinkable.

-Being someone who isn’t especially athletic completing the Camino was a huge accomplishment to me. I know I surprised some of the people in my life, and I even surprised myself. I miss the feeling of accomplishment after a hard days hike.

-Getting to spend so much time with Pops was also one of the best parts. There weren’t many father daughter pairs on the Camino. In fact I can’t actually recall if we met any others. We have a pretty great relationship and he learned pretty early on that if I was in the midst of a blister melt down it was best to just leave me be. I get upset fast, but I’m back to my normal happy self equally as quick. I’d happily walk across another country with him as my sidekick.

For the last year I’d planned to blog a ton about our experiences on the Camino but every time I sit down to write I’m at a loss of words as to how to describe the whole experience. I had walked the Camino to find answers to the age old question of “What the hell am I doing with my life??” But instead I ended up with no answers and only more questions. What I did make of it is this though- that I strive to live a full life with an open heart. To be brave even when things are scary. To tell those I care about how I feel about them even at the risk of it not being reciprocated. To live without regrets. Or as Daniel puts it in the iconic Camino movie The Way……You don’t choose a life. You live one. I couldn’t agree more.

Buen Camino my fellow pilgrims. I hope our paths cross again….

 

Upgrade

Well folks it finally happened…..after years of traveling I finally got what I’ve always dreamed of….an upgrade!! I’ve lived in Saudi Arabia for nearly 4 years total and every time I turn up to the airport I make sure my blond locks are on point and my lipstick is in place in the hopes of getting an upgrade. Sadly, the most this has ever gotten me is some hardcore stares and some passive/borderline aggressive flirting. But never an upgrade. All this changed last week when I returned from my 59th country after taking a solo trip to Azerbaijan and Georgia. I’ll be blogging more on them later but both were awesome and I would highly recommend adding them to your travel list.

So originally I had booked my flights from Saudi on Qatar Air, which is a really nice airline and since ya’ll know how stressed I am about flying I like to fly with airlines that I know are very safe. Then the diplomatic row broke out between Qatar and the neighbouring Gulf countries and a week before my trip all flights with Qatar Air were canceled coming in or out of Saudi (and several other countries.) Luckily I got a refund but was left stranded trying to buy last minute tickets and now my only options were mostly budget type airlines which freaks me out. As it turned out the only real way to continue with my planned itinerary was to by 3 one way tickets so I flew Emirates to Dubai and then Fly Dubai into Baku Azerbaijan. This wasn’t an option as a return flight as the flight times didn’t line up. I then flew Azerbaijan Air from Baku to Tbilisi Georgia and then bought a really short flight connection back with Gulf Air via Bahrain with an hour layover. I had looked to buy a round trip ticket with Gulf Air but there were literally no flights the week that I was leaving. No flights, not tickets. This should’ve been a tip of what was to come…..

So anyways I flew to Dubai. While I was waiting for my connection someone from Gulf Air called me and told me my return flight in 9 days was to be delayed leaving Tbilisi and that I would miss my Riyadh connection. I was like how the heck can you possibly know that a flight will be delayed by 2 hours in 9 days time??! Sleep deprivation and irritation over all ready having to re-book this trip made me basically tell the guy that “this is unacceptable and if the flight isn’t going to be on time then just refund my ticket and I’ll fly home via Dubai.” This ladies and gentlemen will prove to be a hilarious statement later in this story. The guy ended up calling me back like 30min later and saying that the flight was back on track.

So I spent a couple nights in Azerbaijan and then on the day I was flying to Tbilisi Georgia there was a wind storm and on the way to the airport I was thinking there’s no way this flight is going to take off but it did. And because it was a short flight and I was getting in after dark I decided not to medicate because I don’t like being groggy solo in a new place once the sun has gone down. Lets just say that flight was a very religious experience for me. Me and G.O.D became one that flight and I regretted not medicating the entire hour. I spent the next week traveling in Georgia which I will tell you more about later. The days leading up to my flight back to Saudi I 100% expected to get a message saying that flight was delayed. It is a very Middle Easter thing that instead of dealing with a problem people will just tell you what you want to hear instead of having to deal with you getting angry. Anyways when I did the online check in everything was on time.

So I arrive at the airport and make my way to the check in counter to check my bag. There are like eight Gulf Air staff eagerly standing around. I walk up and they start to get very excited. The check in process starts and they tell me I am their first customer. I’m all “of the day?” And their all “no ma’am ever. This is a new route for Gulf Air.” And I’m like that’s cool and they hand me a bag with flowers and ask to take my picture and I’m immediately regretting not wearing something a little more low cut and a little more fashionable. After photo time is over I ask to make sure I have a window seat and someone makes a comment that not only am I the first customer I am the only customer that day. And I laugh because surely they must be joking. So yes I get a window seat in economy and I go sit down nearby the check in area as I wanted to text my friends at how cool it is that I’m their first customer. In the meantime some men in suits who are obviously “someone” in Gulf Air arrive. The Gulf Air staff are shaking hands and everyone is patting each other on the back. And then someone points in my direction and the men in suits come over and introduce themselves and ask can they have their picture as well. And I’m all “sure boys I don’t see why not.” And then one of the men asks me for my boarding pass and comes back a few minutes later with it and I’ve been upgraded to Business Class. I damn near hugged the guy I was so excited…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

So I go thru security and then wait at the gate. The flight arrives from Bahrain which is the first flight on that route as well and so there are people on the tarmac taking picture and there were two firetrucks spraying the plane as it pulled up to the gate which is apparently something they do on inaugural flights. Who knew?! So I’m waiting at the gate and there are like maybe 5 other people sitting in that area so I just assume they are also on my flight. So it’s finally time to board and they overhead page the flight. And I’m expecting these other people to get up and board but they don’t so I walk up to the desk and a man comes up and says to me “shall we go?” And escorts me on the plane. I just roll with it because I’m still not realizing what is happening. And so I get to the plane and everyone is clapping and there are more photos and I’ve literally got the entire plane to myself. They tell me I can sit wherever I like (because I’m the only passenger.) They overhead paged a flight solely for me! It’s not like it was a small plane either it was an A320 which seats probably 150 passengers. So I pick a seat in Business Class and immediately start sipping champagne as we take off. It was totally the bomb. I skipped medicating in lew of alcohol and am so glad I did!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let me just say that flying will never be the same if I’m not sitting in Business Class on my own private plane. The seats up there are super comfortable, the food is about a million times better and also unlimited champagne. I just sat there and smiled the entire time, and took a noteworthy amount of selfies. Then I fully relined my chair and took a cat nap (most likely on account of the champagne and wine). In hindsight I probably should’ve sat in literally every seat just to say I had. But truth be told, I kept expecting them to realize that I was a famous blogger from Saudi Arabia (not so much) and offer me free flights for life or at the very least a year! Sadly, that did not happen. But I will forever rave about Gulf Air as I do think they are pretty great! I even got a certificate saying I had taken part on an inaugural flight! For those of you who know me you would expect that I asked to see the cockpit. I was very relived when they told me I could but only when the plane was on the ground, so they kept things according to safety standards. When we landed I took a picture of the cockpit and then was asked if I wanted to sit in the captains seat and I was like “YES.” And then as if the guy knew my soul he asked if I wanted a picture in the captains seat wearing his hat. “I 100% did.” BEST DAY EVER!!!

 

After that I boarded my flight to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia where I was not upgraded and so it seems Cinderella left her glass slipper in the Business Class area on that Gulf Air flight from Tbilisi to Bahrain. In’Shallah she gets it back sometime soon. This whole thing makes that previous phone call a riot now though. Can you imagine that I told someone that it was unacceptable for that flight time to be changed not knowing that I was the only passenger booked on that flight. What a total diva. But cheers Gulf Air for making my travel dream come true and finally offering me the upgrade I’ve waited 59 countries for!

 

 

 

Day Trips from Dubrovnik

Back in April I spent 10 days in Croatia. A week of it was based in Dubrovnik as I previously told you about. The remainder of my time was spent further north in the city of Split. Dubrovnik made a great base from which to explore from. Two of the places we explored were a very easy half day trip from the Old Town. If you are planning a trip to Croatia be sure to include the towns of Cavtat and Kupari on your list. Both are to the south of Dubrovnik and both are accessible via public bus or if you’re lazy like me then Uber or local taxi. But Uber is by far cheaper.

Cavtat

The seaside town of Cavtat is about 30 min south by car.  It is an idyllic town with hotels, shops and restaurants. There is a cute little harbour and the water is that prefect shade of turquoise blue. You can walk around the rugged coastline and scramble over the rocks along the shore. While I was there we had the good fortune of meeting up with a fellow travel blogger whose blog I have followed for years but never actually met in person. Gigi writes a blog called The Ramble and has been a long term traveler- she travels with her boyfriend Chad and super cute dog named Luna. The three of them met us and we spend a few hours wandering Cavtat, chatting about life and travel and eating one of the best meals we had during our time in Croatia at a restaurant called Bugenvila. They have a seasonal menu that changes monthly- the fresh oysters, pork belly and blood orange sorbet were fantastic. With full bellies we decided to take a local ferry back which offered great views of the Old Town of Dubrovnik. I would highly recommend doing that- especially if you fancy some great pictures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kupari

This was by far my most favourite thing I did in Croatia. I had previously seen photos of large abandoned hotels on other bloggers websites and Instagram. Gigi had also written a blog post about it a month or 2 before my trip so the images had stuck in my head. Kupari is a town on the Adriatic Sea about a 15min car ride from Old Town. It was a military resort for the Yugoslav Army and consisted of 5 hotel complexes. Most of the resort complex dates from the 1960’s except the opulent Grand Hotel which was built sometime in the 1920’s. The hotels surrounding the Grand Hotel were more of a Soviet era architecture and are strikingly different from the Grand Hotel. The resort complex was used until the early 1990’s when the Croatian- Bosnian War (otherwise known as the Homeland War) started. The Yugoslav Army then razed the entire complex. Everything was looted, and much of it was burned.

The resort complexes overlook the lovely Kupari beach which is used by locals. We jumped in a taxi and told him to drop us at the abandoned hotels. They are just off the main road and it’s a short walk towards the beach and you will see the eerie structures rising above the tress. The complexes are open. You can literally walk right into the abandoned hotels. There is no security guard, no security fence, no warning signs (at least when we visited.) But it goes without saying that entering  these sites is not without risk. The windows have all been blown out and there is glass littering the floor. The stairs are in varying stages of decay. The elevator pits are open.  There is exposed wire. Don’t let this deter you though. If you are a fan of urban photography then this is a place worth exploring. There were very few other people there although many local people were walking their dogs or strolling in the park area in between the hotels.

We chose to visit the large hotel on the right when walking towards the beach- it turned out that it was actually two different hotels with an attached walkway in between the two. There’s a sad little playground with a plastic slide on the side of the hotel. You enter through what would have been the main entrance but is just an opening on ground level and we climbed the debris riddled stairs 2 floors and did a little exploring. There is graffiti and abandoned bits of furniture and nothing especially remarkable in this first hotel. We then walked into the hotel that is connected to it and over looks the Adriatic Sea. This hotel was quite remarkable in that nature is literally reclaiming the hotel. Trees have grown in the courtyard winding themselves around bits of the remaining stairs and since the windows are missing the sea winds breeze through. You can explore the individual hotel rooms- but nothing much remains. There are bits of tile here and broken bits of furniture there. Anything of value was long ago looted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From here we exited the way we came in and walked over to explore the Grand Hotel. And grand it is. It has a colonial air to it. Parts of the arched window frame and terracotta tiled roof remain. There’s the lingering remains of the tiled floor and bits of patterned wall paper lining the walls. What was once the grand staircase has been completely destroyed but still makes for a stunning picture. The roof is missing over part of the hotel but still it’s magnificent. Out front of the Grand Hotel is another large ruined hotel and the wall outside is adorned with some artistic forms of graffiti. We didn’t venture into that one but it reportedly has an abandoned in ground pool.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So if you’re heading to Dubrovnik and like odd places to take interesting pictures this is the place to go. That being said- I wouldn’t go alone, and I wouldn’t go at dark. Wear very sturdy shoes because as I mentioned there is glass and nails on the floor. The entire complex has been privatized and sometime soon a new 5 star resort will be built on the land, so go now while you can. During my research I did find mention that the Grand Hotel will remain though, as it’s a protected historical building. Time will tell……

Have you even explored abandoned places while traveling? If so where- I’d love to add them to my ever growing travel list!

The Croatian- Bosnian War

Back in April I spent 10 days in Croatia and I wanted to talk a little about the history of the region specifically, the Croatian-Bosnian War, before I tell you more about my time there. Just to preface this- you all know I’m relatively smart, but I’m definitely no history scholar, and even though I was a teenager when this war took place I don’t really remember much about it. I do think it’s a good idea though to have a bit of understanding of the history of a place before you visit it. So this is my 7th grade history summary of the events that took place in the early 1990’s.

Remember that country that used to be call Yugoslavia– or more accurately the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia? Well it was made up of the present day countries of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia. This socialist state was formed after World War II and was ruled by Josip Bronz Tito until his death in 1980. Following his death things started to heat up in terms of ethnic pride in the region and economic challenges. The late 1980’s saw increasing Serbian pride (Serbians are the largest ethnic group in the area) and increasing popularity of a Serbian communist named Slobodan Milosevic. 1990 saw increasing violence especially in Croatia between Serbian Croats and Croatians. Neighbouring Slovenia voted for independence and Croatia followed in its steps- both countries declaring independence on June 25, 1991. The following day the Yugoslav army mobilized troops and moved towards Slovenia. Slovenia gained its independence over a period of 10 days with minimal casualties and damage. Croatia did not fare the same.

August and September 1991 saw increasing sieges and massacres in Croatian towns by Serbian forces of the Yugoslav People’s Army. The Battle of Vukovar for instance saw complete destruction of the city with territory being seeded to Serbia and ethnic cleansing of the non-Serbian population with hundreds of civilians killed and some 20,000 people forced to relocate. Then in October 1991 the Yugoslav Army started advancing towards Dubrovnik from Montenegro capturing the territory surrounding it. Full scale war broke out across Croatia. The Dubrovnik attack lasted nearly 8 months and resulted in a Croatian victory but more than 50% of the buildings in the Old Town were damaged and some 80 civilians were killed. By the time the war ended in 1995 some 20,000 people had been killed as a result and half a million people were displaced.

1992 saw Macedonia and then Bosnia and Herzegovina declare their independence. In April the Bosnian War started and the siege of Sarajevo began. This conflict was between the Yugoslav Army forces made up of Serbs against Bosniaks (mostly Muslim) and Croat forces. It lasted nearly 4 years and resulted in massive civilian death and displacement. 100,000 people were killed and 2.2 million were displaced. The Bosnian war used ethnic cleansing, genocide and rape which later resulted in war crime charges. The Croatian-Bosnian War is the most devastating conflict in Europe since WWII.

This is obviously just a brief summary of the events that took place- the history of conflict in this region is complex. The effects of the war are still evident, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina where bullet holes are still visible on the sides of buildings. The buildings like the people carry the scars of this war. Dubrovnik itself was rebuilt and from an outward appearance the signs of the conflict are hidden. Shiny new roofs adorn buildings that sustained damage and if you weren’t aware you might wander its old cobble stone streets none the wiser. You could spend hours and hours reading the history of the conflict pertaining to the different countries, and like all wars each side has their own story. While in Croatia I visited Bosnia and Herzegovina and also spend a day in Montenegro which was largely unaffected by the conflict. The guides spoke of the history of the region but cautioned against speaking to locals about it as the wounds are fresh and the loved ones they lost not so long ago buried.

In the next few weeks I’ll tell you more of my time in Croatia. I’m heading on vacation tonight on a solo trip to Azerbaijan and Georgia for some R&R which I’m very much looking forward to. I’ve been laying low the last few months from a foot issue I likely developed as a result of walking the Camino de Santiago this past fall but yesterday I had a steroid injection so inshallah I’ll be back to my normal activity level in the next few weeks….fingerscrossed!

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