Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Category: Europe (page 1 of 4)

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!

Dubrovnik Croatia

If you watch that popular TV show called Game of Thrones then you probably know that part of it is filmed on location in the medieval city of Dubrovnik Croatia. I’ve never seen it, but the city is chalk full of Game of Thrones tours if that happens to be your thing. Last week I returned from a trip to Croatia spending my time in Dubrovnik and Split. Originally I had wanted to visit Luxor Egypt as this has been on my travel bucket list for a long time, but the security situation isn’t ideal right now so the next place I really wanted to go was Croatia. For the first week of this trip I had a travel partner from back home, a guy I met about a month before I returned to Saudi this last time. He hasn’t traveled much but was keen to travel so when I left I told him if he ever wanted to tag along on an adventure with me he was more than welcome. We ended up being great travel partners. He’s low key and went along easily with my shenanigans, so we had a lot of fun. Also he follows directions really well and never let on that he was getting annoyed or tired of being directed to take photos for me (of me.) Don’t get too excited though Mom and start buying wedding gifts- we’re just really good friends.

We met up in Frankfurt and flew into Dubrovnik together. As I’ve mentioned the only way I’m comfortable traveling is medicated, buzzed or exhausted. If I’m sleeping on a flight then I’m not focused on dying which makes it pleasant for myself and whoever I’m traveling with. The previous day I worked a 12 hour shift, came home, showered and took a red eye flight to Frankfurt. I had a 4hour layover so we hit the Lufthansa lounge and got me some wine. Wine + severe lack of sleep were a perfect combo as I didn’t really wake up until we were approaching the airport. Dubrovnik airport is small. Like it makes the tiny airport of my home town look impressive. I had booked us into an Airbnb in the Old Town and the owner sent her husband to come collect us which was super helpful. Dubrovnik is made up of the Old Town and then newer modern bits. The Old Town is built along the water and is basically a walled city, and the newer sections span up and outwards to the hill above it. The first view of the Old Town driving from the airport leaves a lasting impression. It looks medieval and magical and you can hardly wait to start exploring.

Dubrovnik is a photographers dream come true. Pretty much every way you turn your head is a postcard worthy picture. The best views of the entire city are by walking the old walls, from Fort Lovrijenac, or viewed from the hill overlooking the city by way of the cable car. The terracotta roofs offer a perfect contrast to the deep blue of the Adriatic Sea. I took a ton of photos from these locations. Walking the walls of the Old Town requires good walking shoes as it’s steep in sections and bring a hat and water for hot days as there’s little in the way of shade. Dubrovnik is a tourist destination the year round. We were there in the shoulder season when only a few cruise ships were docking and it was still extremely crowded in the Old Town some afternoons. I read that during peak season 10,000 tourists are dropped in Old Town although they are looking at decreasing it to 8000. Personally, I hate traveling during peak months because I find other tourists annoying so I’m willing to risk maybe no so great weather in exchange for me not having a full fledged melt down when someone runs over my toes with a baby stroller for the tenth time that day, or when a large tour group cuts the line.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We used Dubrovnik as a base for us to travel from. We spent only a couple days actually exploring it and then did a couple morning trips to the south of Dubrovnik and fit in two day trips to neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina, and to Montenegro, all of which I will fill you in on upcoming blogs. I will also tell you a 7th grade explanation of the Croatian War of which I’m no expert but you should have a basic understanding of prior to visiting the region. Over half of the building in Dubrovnik were damaged in the conflict of the early 1990’s, many in the Old Town. You can assess the damage when you walk the old city walls- the buildings that were damaged all have shiny new roofs. This is one of those places where history and war are intertwined and this war happened not so very long ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spend an entire day just exploring the Old Town. Wandering the streets and alleyways to see where they led. Stopping into churches and Old Buildings and grabbing an afternoon glass of wine. I had no idea prior to going to Croatia that it had such a huge wine culture. Trust me- Croatia has many good wines. I drank enough of them to be sure of that much. And really good oysters and seafood. And you know what pairs well with oysters and seafood. Yep chilled Croatian wine of course. There are two bars on the cliffs overlooking the sea just outside of the city walls- I would highly recommend getting a table at one of them and watching the sunset. You won’t be disappointed. The morning of our last day after my travel partner had left to catch his early morning flight I got up around sunrise and wandered the Old Town taking photos. The streets were pretty much empty save for street cleaners, early morning delivery men, locals walking their dogs, and the odd traveler who had the same idea as me. It was a really nice way to end my time in Dubrovnik- outside, alone with my thoughts and my camera watching the sun peak through the buildings in the Old Town.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you’re pressed for time you could probably explore the Old Town of Dubrovnik in a day. I’ve long ago given up on traveling fast and furious and trying to pack as much in as possible though. For me, spending a week there and allowing for day trips, and afternoons naps, and time to write and sip wine suited me just perfectly. June, July and August are peak tourist time so plan your trip to Croatia accordingly!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As for me I’ve got a bunch of blog posts in the works. I’m looking forward to telling you about the rest of my time in Croatia and then planning on writing a series of posts about Pops and my time on the Camino de Santiago this past fall. I’m going to Geneva Switzerland for a long weekend near the end of the month and then I’ve got some vacation time in June that I haven’t quite narrowed down where I’m wanting to go. Georgia (the country) is high on the list as is Ethiopia so I’ll keep you posted. I’ve been mostly laying low since I got back from Croatia. My social life had been pretty hectic the last couple months so I’m a little emotionally burnt out and am being more selective about what I’m getting up to. I’ve also been getting a lot of emails from nurses who are interested in working in Saudi so I’m the process of writing a post to answer some of the most common questions I get asked. So that’s all for me. Hope ya’ll are well and thanks for stopping by.

Camino Lessons…..

Pops and I completed our Camino three months ago tomorrow. Where the heck has the time gone? I learned so many things on the Camino and wanted to share these Camino lessons with you. These lessons come from stories told by other pilgrims, notes or messages left literally on the path, or feelings and thoughts I had while walking. Enjoy!

 

1. Anyone can do the Camino- even you! I have met people 40 years older than myself who blew past me on the hills. People who weigh much more than me. People with disabilities. We met a lady who had MS who walked with her daughter and a blind man who walked with a guide. People walk with children. We met a couple who walked with their son who was 20 months old. Our favourite Camino sidekick was a 73 years old American and he carried his backpack the entire way. You too can walk the Camino!!

2. The body is amazing. The changes that you will notice in the period of a few weeks are awesome. Your strength and endurance change quickly. Hills that previously would’ve made you stop and take a breath every few minutes you can suddenly walk without stopping. Pops and I would joke that when we finished we wanted to fly back to the starting point and re-do the hike from Saint Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles just to see how much easier crossing the Pyrenees would feel!

3. Nature is good for your soul. It was especially good for mine. Seeing the world at walking pace is like a day long meditation. Everything is slowed down. You take notice of things you otherwise wouldn’t. I loved the quiet and the peacefulness of the walk. In fact I found it very jarring when we occasionally crossed paths with a large group of loudish pilgrims. I would make Pops stop and wait until they were out of hearing distance so I could get my peaceful space back. My eyes tended to focus on the brilliant colours and the texture of the foliage that surrounded us. I’ve never been a real nature junky but this trip changed me. It changed the way I see nature.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Be kind to yourself and to your Camino. It is your Camino and yours alone. Do it on your own terms. Accept that sometimes it won’t go according to your plans. Ours sure didn’t. We had planned to walk the entire 800km carrying our packs the entire way. That was our “plan.” Our Camino took a different “plan” though. Because I had such painful blisters we were forced to skip about 100km of the walk on the meseta (the flattest portion) and jumped ahead to Leon to rest for 4 days and so I could buy new shoes (breaking in new shoes part way through was definitely not in my plan!) And we ended up shipping our bags several days to give us a break and to help with Pops shin splints. We had to be kind to ourselves and just listen to what our bodies were telling us. And since it came down to making the decision between walking and shipping our packs ahead, or not walking it was pretty easy to let the guilt fall away about shipping our packs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. From now on whenever I get asked what my favourite body part is I will answer that it’s my feet. My feet carried me across nearly an entire country. They blistered and healed and blistered again, and still they walked. I’d never really spent much time thinking about what my feet do for me, but walking that far makes you spend a great deal of time thinking about them. Trust me.  I’ve come to cherish them!

6. I think it’s important to note that it doesn’t matter how old you are- whatever deep seeded insecurities you’ve battled in the past will likely make an appearance some point on the Camino. It’s also a great place to work through them. I’ve always been the type of person who doesn’t easily ask for help, and often because I offer help quickly to others I also expect this in return (although I’d never tell anyone that!) So this is a vicious circle for me- expecting others to know what I need from them in relationships because that’s what I offer, but never actually telling the other person/s and then getting upset when they don’t pick up on this (because I never told them.) It’s definitely not my most mature quality. But post Camino I’m trying very hard to tell those around me what I need from them instead of resenting them when they don’t do that thing that they don’t know I needed in the first place. There was a miserable two days for me on the Camino when a group situation left me feeling ignored, replaceable and left out. It hit a deep childhood pain similar to those of you who may have been picked last for a team when you were a child. I’m glad it happened though because it gave me a chance to take a deep look at myself and what triggered those feelings for me in the first place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

7. One of the best lessons I learned from the Camino was the importance of looking behind you. Both on the Camino and in life in general. On the Camino since the views ahead were stunning, but especially in the mornings the sun rises behind you and turning around to take in the changing light I was often surprised by how glorious the view was. For those of you like me who are into photography make sure to turn around. The view will endlessly surprise you.

8. There are Camino messages everywhere. Make of them what you will. For me the written messages that line the Camino left by pilgrims of past were inspirational. Some brought tears to my eyes, or made me contemplate things or encouraged me to push on. They were a constant reminder of the massive number of pilgrims who have come before me. Sometimes these messages were of a funny nature also- like the one that exclaimed “Martin Sheen was here!” Or the one advertising “Free Blisters next 16km.” Both made me laugh literally out loud. Thank you to whomever left those!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9. I wish I could go back to a time where I was ignorant to bed bugs. We traveled with a Australian guy who had walked the Camino before and regaled us with tales of bedbugs. Thanks to him there wasn’t a night I wasn’t itchy before going to bed. But also thanks to him we knew how to treat bedbugs and what to watch for. We did have one encounter with these little beasts, but somehow ended up not getting bitten and they didn’t end up in our things. I’ll definitely be treating my sleep sac or sleeping bag properly before our next big walk!

10. For me the Camino wasn’t the spiritual awakening I had thought it would be. For me it was mostly about community. About the human spirit and connection. It was about meeting so many amazing people who touched my heart. Many of who I still keep in touch with, many whom I know I will see again. Our paths were meant to cross and they will again at some point in the future. The Camino strips you all down to being the same. There’s no bullshit. No one cares what kind of car you drive, or how big your house is. In fact those things never come up. People care about why you’re walking. What you’ve learned. How you’re feeling physically. People are quick to offer up help- we met a man who bought a young German pilgrim new shoes because hers were too small and she couldn’t afford new ones. That’s the spirit of the Camino. We are all walking in this tiny bubble together. We are all connected. This couldn’t be more evident than at the end of a days walk and you sit down to chat with fellow pilgrims and get word of mouth updates about people you had lost track with. It’s a really amazing network. One that I long to be a part of again!

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ll end this with a quote from one of my favourite authors Rebecca Solnit. Her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking is a super interesting read if you’re a little obsessed with walking as I recently have become!

“Exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind,

and walking travels both terrains.”

Don’t you agree…..Happy Walking!

 

 

A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim……

Here’s some insight into a day in the life of a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago….Most likely depending on your budget, who you are traveling with and whether you are a light sleeper will determine how well you slept last night. If you’re on a budget and staying in dorm hostels then hopefully you’ve brought a good set of earplugs with you, otherwise the roaring vibrations of your fellow snoring pilgrims likely lulled you to sleep. Or you might find yourself on a bunk bed above or below a restless sleeper and feel like you’re riding on a ship as the waves toss you from side to side.

If you’re in a dorm room you’ll likely be awoken before 6am by a fellow pilgrim. Some are courteous. Some will flick the lights on and rustle through their bags for a lengthy amount of time. To be fair, unless you are sleeping in your next day clothes, it’s difficult to be super organized in the morning as there’s little room in the dorm areas to lay out the things you need. I’m sure you’ve all read how annoying plastic bags are. Don’t pack your things in them. They make a heck of a lot of noise and are pretty annoying for anyone sharing a room with you.

Most mornings Pops and I got up around 6:20am or 6:30am. It should be noted that when we walked in late September into October the sun rose late. If we had been walking in the spring we would’ve been up earlier. Often someone turns the lights on by 6:30. You get up. Head for the loo. Wash your face. Brush your teeth. Get dressed. Pack up. Your feet will now need some attention. Your method of choice will likely included either double layered socks, Vaseline, or covering ever possible inch of skin on your feet with some sort of bandage or tape (this was my method!) You’ll stand up, take a few steps and realize that your socks are bunched up, laces are too tight or loose, or you’ve got a piece of skin not covered by tape. So you’ll drop everything and readjust.

Next it will be time for breakfast. Your alburgue may or may not provide breakfast. If they do lower your expectations greatly. It will likely only include coffee and toast with jam. No protein at all. So if you do manage to find eggs, cheese, or yogurt consider yourself very, very lucky! We stayed in an alburgue where 2 ladies were boiling eggs for their breakfast the following morning. They quickly became geniuses in my book. If your alburgue doesn’t include breakfast then hopefully there’s a bar and it’s open in whichever village you find yourself in. Go there. Get a coffee and a tortilla de potatoe. So good.

Next grab a torch (headlamp/flash light) and hit the trail. In the dark it can be hard to actually make out the yellow arrows that guide every move you make on the Camino. Start walking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With any luck you’ll come to a village with an open bar in the next 1-2 hours. Stop. It’s time for breakfast number two. We ate double breakfast all the time while walking. Especially if you only had toast at the alburgue you’ll want something more substantial. Then, continue walking.

Chat with fellow pilgrims. Focus an absurd amount of time to thinking about your aching muscles, your blisters, or why the heck you packed so much shit in the first place. Ask yourself why it seems that French men always wear the tiniest of knickers and parade around in them, or why you didn’t learn more Spanish for this trip apart from being able to order a couple beers. Get distracted by the scenery.

Next it’s beer o’clock. Which is pretty much anytime after 12pm. Keep walking. Consult your guidebook or phone app to review the upcoming elevation changes. Taking breaks is essential, but rest assured for every break you take it will easily take your body 20 min to get back into walking mode. Everything gets stiff. Mostly I started out every morning and after anytime I sat for more than 5 min hobbling like I was easily double my age.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the afternoon gets on it’s time to find a place to sleep for the night. We mostly called it quits around 2-3pm. It’s nice to arrive at an alburgue, get checked in and get your credential stamped. Choose a bed (if you’re in a dorm), drop your pack and either grab a shower or a cold beer. Often beer then shower, but sometimes shower then beer for us. A cold beverage is so rewarding after a long days walk. Every second to third day will be laundry day depending on weather and the washing facilities wherever you are staying. Then chat with fellow pilgrims. Or journal, or plan how far you might want to walk the following day.

Dinner time is often 7pm but sometimes 8pm in the larger cities. Go for the pilgrim menu as it’s normally good bang for your Euro (3 courses with unlimited wine for 9-10 Euros.) And yes, you read that right…..unlimited wine. The menu does tend to get boring after a while though, but the wine is always good. Many of the alburgues have kitchens should you fancy cooking something. We rarely did this but if you’re on a budget this is a good way to keep costs down. Dinners are by far one of my favourite memories from the Camino. That sense of camaraderie is like nothing I have ever experienced before. To sit around and chat with fellow pilgrims from a mixmash of different countries spanning in age from early 20’s into their 70’s or 80’s is a really unique experience. The Camino has a great way of leveling everything so despite our differences, at our core we pilgrims are all the same.

After dinner is finished and you’ve consumed enough wine to make you sleep through your fellow pilgrims snoring, it’s time for bed. Some alburgues will lock the doors so it’s good to know what time that happens at. We met several pilgrims who returned shortly after curfew and weren’t allowed into the alburgue. So go wash your face, brush your teeth and wedge your earplugs in and dream. Night night!

A pilgirms mantra is basically…..WALK>EAT>SLEEP>REPEAT

My Top 10 from 2016

Last year I did a recap of my favourite travel destinations and memories from the previous year. So with the New Year upon us I wanted to write another post about my top 10 destinations from 2016. It was another great year of travel for me. Looking back over the past 12 months it was a busy year. I worked full-time as a VIP nurse in Saudi Arabia from January until September when I left to walk the Camino de Santiago with my Pops. I had a whopping 178 days of travel (mind you almost 3 months of this I was technically unemployed!) I visited 15 countries, 9 of them new for me. I saw a lot, I took a lot of pictures, and I lived it up. I hope this doesn’t sound bragadocious, because it’s not meant to (credit to Donald T for inventing this awesome word!) Some of that travel was with friends from Saudi, and I did some travel through Europe with my mom, and then spent about 7 weeks with my Dad while we walked across Northern Spain. Quite a bit of it was on my own- which I’ve become quite a fan. So here’s my top 10 from 2016 (in no particular order).

1. Romania

Romania is hardly mentioned in the top 10 of most people’s bucket lists, and as per my usual form of travel I did very little research about the country prior to going. Usually when I do very little research about a trip (which is most of the time) I am always pleasantly surprised. Romania was exactly that. I spent a week based in Bucharest and did a couple day trips, one to Transylvania and the other into neighbouring Bulgaria. My favourite memories from that trip were visiting Peles Castle and later Bram Castle which is also known as Dracula’s Castle (although in reality it has very little to do with Dracula.) These castles couldn’t have been more different from one another. Peles Castle is from the late 1800s and built in a Gothic Bavarian style, whereas Bram Castle is an old fortress castle that sits atop a cliff. It dates from the 1400’s and has a very eerie feel to it,  and even though it’s only a tale, I loved the stories of Dracula in relation to Romania History. The other standout thing from this trip was that we did a walking tour in Bucharest that took us to old decaying places which was super cool. Bucharest is also full of urban art and graffiti of which I’m a huge fan. It’s pretty inexpensive, had great restaurants, and was a very walkable city. So add Romania to your list of places to visit in 2017!

Peles Castle

Bram Castle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. Italy

I spent 11 lovely days in Italy solo, splitting my time between Rome and Florence. To say I loved it would be an understatement. I look back on my time in Italy and smile because I was brimming with happiness and confidence. The architecture, the food, the Chianti, the museums were fantastic. Between the two, Florence was my favourite, and I’m sure this was because I booked myself a cheapish hotel that had phenomenal views of the cathedral from my private balcony. It felt like I could just reach across and touch it, and I could hear the street artists below playing music which felt like I had my own private show. This trip was a turning point in solo travel for me, and I became very comfortable in my own skin. I no longer have any issues with eating alone, or going to a bar for a drink, or wandering a city. This trip was a huge confidence boost for me, and made me feel so brave and empowered. Two of my favourite memories of that trip involved random encounters with fellow travelers. I met an American girl around my age who she and her parents adopted me during my time in Rome and it was a real pleasure getting to know them! My other favourite memory was meeting a couple from Texas on a day tour of Tuscany.  We met up for dinner in Florence and then for dinner and drinks my last night in Rome. By drinks I mean bottle after bottle of delicious Chianti. This resulted in a very hungover (possibly still drunk) me trying to get to the airport for my early morning flight! Oh the memories we make while traveling…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. The United Arab Emirates

I visited Dubai a few times over the last year and one of the highlights for me (and a silly Bucket List item) was to stay at the Atlantis resort. So for one night on a huge splurge (and because if you are a Saudi resident you qualify for the GCC discount) I stayed here. As you can imagine it was very nice. There’s a ton to do, so no real need to leave the resort if you don’t want to. We had free admission to the water park which was pretty cool, but the outdoor pool area and the aquarium were highlights for me. Oh, and the food was really good as well. I also visited Abu Dhabi and as I recently blogged about got to visit the iconic Sheikh Zayed mosque which has long been a place I wanted to visit. If you’re in Dubai make the trip to Abu Dhabi to see the mosque- it’s a stunning example of Islamic architecture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. The Czech Republic

There’s so much to see in the Czech Republic and this trip was especially special (is that a thing?) as I reunited with a guy I met several years earlier on my first solo trip to Portugal. It was so great to see him and have him take us around his city, and meet his partner, and check out hot Czech guys and eat good food. This was also the trip where my mom and I visited the town we believe is where my Oma (German for grandmother) grew up prior to her time in Germany where my mother was born. We flew into Germany and then spent a few days in Austria before visiting the Czech towns of Cesky Krumlov, Ceske Budejovice, Brno and Prague. We found that it was easier to travel around on the bus than the train (comfortable seats and wifi!) We ended the trip with a few days in Prague which is a fantastically walkable city of which I am always a fan. Also Czech is pretty inexpensive as far as Europe goes so you won’t break the bank while traveling there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. Poland

One of the other solo trips I took this past year was to Poland. I only had time to visit Warsaw so obviously a return trip is in order as there are many other places I would like to visit. Warsaw, specifically the old town, is rife with history. It is also rife with graffiti and displays of urban art which brings me a great amount of joy! The city felt very open and green, it was easy to navigate, and I felt totally safe wandering around on my own. The best thing I did while there was take a couple walking tours to learn about Poland’s history in WW2. It was fascinating. In hindsight it might’ve been better had I learned some of this history prior to visiting but seeing as I’m not one for planning or researching much before I go (I’ve become super lazy in my travel style and really only care about where I’m staying) this didn’t happen. Maybe one of my New Years resolutions will be a actually properly research a place before I visit. Somehow I doubt I’ll actually get my shit together and follow through on this. Plus it’s so much more fun making decisions on the fly!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6. Jordan

This summer my short few day break to Jordan was just the relaxation I needed. The resorts that line the Dead Sea on the Jordan side are fancy with infinity pools and pool boys who will clean your sunglasses, and bring you towels and ice which make for a very happy me. While Petra itself is amazing, I’m so glad that we made the effort to visit the site at night. Especially since there was a full moon when we visited which provided for a lot of ambient light and beautiful pictures. It was also nice to get to revisit Bedouin culture as a trip to Petra at night includes traditional Bedouin music and tea. Even though it is pretty touristy I would recommend seeing Petra both by day and night. It’s stunning in the day but at night it has a magical mystical feel to it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7. Spain

I’ve spend a lot of time in Spain this past year. Early last year I spent a week split between Barcelona and Madrid with a night in Zaragoza to see the Arabic Palace called Aljaferia, because as we’ve already established I have a major crush on Islamic architecture. Then this fall I spent just over 5 weeks in Spain walking the Camino de Santiago with my Pops. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life and an experience that if I’m being honest, I haven’t fully debriefed from (hence my lack of blogging about it yet.) We walked around 700km from the French border to the northwestern Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was the biggest physical accomplishment of my life, one that I’m quite certain I will walk again (or another route). Everyday the scenery we walked was stunning and it really slowed things down for me and made me think about what I want out of life, and about how much stuff we all have that we don’t need. And how stuff does not equal happiness, but being out in the world interacting with people from all different walks of life does make me extremely happy. So more about the Camino in the upcoming weeks. But in the event you are looking for a cheapish European vacation- Spain is very reasonable, especially once you leave the bigger cities. And the Euro is quite low right now and airfare is pretty cheap to Europe so it’s a good time to take advantage of it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8. Paris France

I spent a month in Paris this fall in a cute but run down apartment in the nieghbourhood of Montmartre. It was really nice to be able to settle into a place and feel like a local. Shopping at the same stores and frequenting the same cafes. My Pops was with me for a short while and then I was lucky enough to have a couple visitors. One of those visitors I suspect I will always associate Paris with. I spent my time exploring, but also doing some writing and reading and generally just hanging out. I caught up with a fellow travel nurse I knew from when I lived in San Francisco. I drank a lot of wine and cappucinos and ate my weight in cheese. (Not really but I do LOVE cheese a lot.) I walked much of the city. Coming to Paris directly after walking the Camino was a bit difficult because I very much missed walking (I still do.) But often I would google distances to whatever I wanted to do and if it was 5km away I’d think “oh that’s just a short walk” and opt to not take the metro. I was in Paris during the month of November which was pretty great because I get a little obsessive about Christmas. I love it so much- the decorations and the lights and colder weather. It was great to wander Paris with the store windows all decorated for the season. Paris is lovely. Tourism there is massively down given the recent terror attacks there and throughout Europe. But since I’m not one to live my life in fear I would say don’t let that deter you one bit! I spend a month there because with many places on AirBnb you get a discount if you book for a month and it ended up being cheaper than if I had booked for only 3 weeks. But a month was plenty long enough for me. 3 weeks would’ve been perfect because Paris is wicked break the bank expensive and I’m terrible with a budget so it was time to move on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9. Amsterdam Netherlands

After Paris I took the train to Amsterdam, a city I had long wanted to explore. And boy oh boy did I love it. Loved it as in it’s maybe my favourite European city ever (or at least tied with Copenhagen) at the very least! I spent a week here in a lovely apartment overlooking one of the main canals and had a grand time. Amsterdam is a very walkable city, and so much cheaper than Paris. A friend whom I met walking the Camino came and visited me for a night which was great. Two things really stood out during my time in Amsterdam. The first was doing a nighttime canal tour. It was the beginning of December when I was there and during the holiday season Amsterdam has numerous illuminated art installations around the city. We took a boat tour along the canals which offers a really cool view of the art itself, but also glimpses of life into the stunning historic canal houses. We sipped mulled wine and oohhhed and ahhhed over the interior decorations, wall colours, and the molded ceilings (but mostly I was just trying to imagine what my life would be like if I was living in any one of these houses!) The other thing I would highly recommend doing when in Amsterdam is taking a tour of the red light district. I mean Amsterdam is known for 2 main things (pot and ladies in windows with red lights overhead) so why not actually learn something about it. I’m not telling you to go to Amsterdam and smoke weed. If you do I have no issues but that’s your own choice. Neither am I telling you to pay for sex. Again, your choice. I’m not going to judge how you spend your money. For me I wanted to take a tour to learn how the red light district came to be, and basically how it works. So I did a tour thru the Prostitute Information Center which leads tours by women who have worked as sex workers in the red light district. It was really informative and I learned the following fun facts…..1/3 of Amsterdam’s prostitutes are over the age of 55. They literally come in all sizes, ages and ethnicity. Also the average time men spend with a lady is 6 minutes. Including getting dressed and undressed. 6. Minutes. But the minimum amount of time a customer must pay for is 15 minutes. Also the ladies are licensed and pay taxes so they basically have their own businesses. I learned a variety of other things as well, but since my Pops reads this I’ll try and keep it clean. Needless to say I left my heart in Amsterdam, and I really want to go back and see more of the Netherlands!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10. Iceland

Iceland is friggin fantastic. It is very, very photogenic and you can pack a lot into a relatively short visit. I spend 5 nights there in December and it did not disappoint. But while it is beautiful it is not cheap. So bring your money, honey cause you’re going to spend it. Once you get over the initial shock of the price of things I’m quite certain you will have a great time. I mean how can’t you with waterfalls, glaciers, tiny horses and Northern Lights aplenty. I met my best mate there and we spent 4 nights in Reykjavik and had one night on a tour to the southern part of the island with Extreme Iceland. It was fantastic, plus our guide was a riot and super entertaining. We visited waterfalls, and petted Icelandic horses who will come to you when you call them just like dogs do! We ended up getting stuck at a gas station while waiting out a wind storm and were lucky enough to see the Northern Lights in between sipping gas station beers. We walked on a beach covered in icebergs, walked on a black sand beach with a phallic rock formation in the windiest conditions I’ve ever been in. We wore crampons and went on an ice hike and posed straddling a crevasse and ate fermented shark (not at the same time.) As you can imagine fermented shark is not great. It’s one of those odd things that gets worse the longer you chew it, and the taste strengthens in your mouth long after you’ve already swallowed it. Thankfully, copious amounts of Icelandic beer does eventually get the taste out. Our final morning in Iceland we relaxed at the Blue Lagoon which as you can imagine is full of tourists, but pretty awesome. It is good to know that in the winter there is very, very little useful hours of daylight. In fact there was only about 3.5 hrs a day when we were there and I’m being generous with that time frame, as a lot of it was “light” how it is at dusk or dawn. I would love to go back in the summer to see it light until 11pm. I would also love to go back and rent a car and drive the island and have the flexibility to stop at absolutely every thermal pool I came across. I would also stop at every farm that had Icelandic horses and walk up to the fence and call the horses over like the pack of friendly horse/puppies that they are and pet them till my hearts content. Do you really need anymore reasons to go to Iceland? Didn’t think so….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So that wraps up my Top 10 from 2016. 2017 is off to a slow and patience trying start. I have decided that I want to return to Saudi Arabia for another year contract, but things are very, very slowly coming together. But fingers crossed they will fall into place in the next week or so. The first time I left Saudi I felt really excited to get an apartment and sign a lease and buy furniture. The current me has none of those deep gut feelings. To be honest I’m clueless as to what country I want to even settle down in, so returning to Saudi feels right and gives me a chance to save  a little more money and see some more things. And you and I both know how much of a fan I am of seeing more things! There are still a couple places in Saudi Arabia I would like to explore. There is a group of islands off the coast of Jeddah called the Farasan Islands that are a protected marine sanctuary that are supposed to be beautiful and I would also love to explore the mountains of Saudi and visit either Abha or Taif. As far as out of Saudi travel I would like to fit in a weekend trip to Oman a place I’ve already seen, and make it over to Africa to visit Ethiopia, Namibia, the Seychelles, or Madagascar. I would also very much like to visit Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia and really any of the Stans. Obviously, I’ll have to pick and choose but these are my top interests. So inshallah in the next couple weeks I’ll have a firmer idea about my return, but in the mean time I’m going to relax and try and get some much overdue blogging about the Camino done.

Wishing all my readers a very happy and healthy 2017. And obviously I wish you some kick-ass travel adventures also…….

 

Warsaw Poland

Way back in June I took a solo trip to Warsaw Poland. I honestly don’t know where the time has gone?! How is it already November? How am I currently 5 months behind blogging about this trip? Well…..better late than never I guess…. Poland honestly wasn’t a country I knew much about before visiting. Originally, I had planned to split my time between Warsaw and Krakow but seeing as I only had 6 nights and I did want some down time I decided to just visit Warsaw and save Krakow for another time.

My initial impression of Warsaw was that it was so green. There was recreational space all around the city which reminded me a lot of large cities in Canada. Coming from Saudi Arabia where one never really sees much green I’m sure I noticed it that much more, but still it gave the city a clean and open feel to it. The older I get the more I like to stay somewhere comfortable. Especially if I’m traveling solo, I want to stay somewhere were I feel safe going out at night and where things are walking distance from my hotel. I’m happy to pay a little extra to be in the center of the action and not have to waste time commuting into the city. I opted to stay on the border of the Old City- it was an easy 10-15min walk to get to most city sites, and there are tons of cafes, bars and restaurants in that area.

I spent most of my time in Warsaw exploring the Old Town, the castle, the square and drinking glasses upon glasses of wine paired with delicious food. Warsaw has several different free walking tours with different themes that meet in the Old Town area. They are a great way to get oriented to a city and to learn the history. Technically, they are not “free” as you tip the guide, but I think they are fantastic and would highly recommend joining onto one of them. The ones I did were thru the Orange Umbrella company, but there are other free tours operating in the Old Town. Warsaw is an interesting city because 85% of its buildings were destroyed in the second World War. Much of the Old City was rebuilt to maintain the look from that time period, but it’s weird touring the castle and the Old Town knowing that much of it isn’t actually old at all.

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I spend part of a morning visiting the Neon Museum which houses neon signs from the cold war era. It’s really quite cool, but a little out of the way and it’s a very small venue. Nonetheless I was happy to have seen it. I also spent some time visiting the Block 10 museum which is within the Citadel and housed political prisoners. I got dropped off at this museum by a taxi driver and there was literally not another person in sight,  and the driver let me out and then drove away. As I walked towards the building I thought to myself how creepy it was and figured that it was closed. I ended up being wrong, but I was the only person in the museum. As I’ve described before I have a way over active imagination. Like I can get myself worked up pretty easily, so touring an old prison solo was not the best idea I’ve ever had. At one point I was walking down a dimly lit corridor with cells lining both sides and there was a gust of wind that blew in and ended up slamming one of the metal doors behind me shut. My heart quite nearly stopped, and then restarted at double its normal rate. It’s funny looking back at it the way nearly having a heart attack always is!! Also all the signs in this museum were in Polish which is less than helpful if you can’t read Polish, but there is a really well done art exhibit which is worth seeing and the museum itself is free. Just watch your back for door slamming ghosts. Another museum I would recommend is the Warsaw Uprising museum. I ended up going on a Sunday and it was free but also super super busy. There is a TON of information in this museum- it’s very well done but completely overwhelming at the amount of information displayed. It’s pretty easy to get information overloaded there.

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One morning I attempted to visit Lazienki Palace which is housed within the largest park in Warsaw. It’s built on a lake, and the views are stunning. Unfortunately, on the day I visited the Palace was closed for some type of government function with security and media. I was still able to get some spectacular shots of the Palace and the park, so all was not lost. Coincidentally, one of the reasons for my visiting the park and the Palace was that it was about a 6km stroll back to my hotel (these were my early days of Camino training). On my way back I stumbled upon a huge overpass with some very talented graffiti work. I’m a sucker for urban art- I’m not talking about the simple “tagging” of graffiti, but the stuff that’s urban and industrial and colourful, and was created at the hands of someone with a great deal of artistic talent. The graffiti covered every possible inch of reachable concrete and I was mesmerized and took at least a hundred pictures. Much to my great pleasure that walk back looped through part of an industrial area, again every surface was covered in urban art!

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My last day I took a taxi 20min south of the city to visit Wilanow Palace which was left largely unscathed from WW2. The Palace was built in the early 1800s and it’s really a marvel to visit. The Palace is white with bright yellow accents and statues lining the roof. The inside of the Palace is decorated with artwork and furniture from that time. One section had tin pieces painted with portraits from the 17th century. The portraits were painted prior to someone dying for the grieving to see the dead and often they were painted in the persons traveling clothes as they believed that death was the ultimate journey to a new life. I quite like this custom. The Palace is surrounded by well manicured grounds that make a lovely stroll.

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Poland has a very significant Jewish history and in fact  parts of Warsaw are quite literally built on the ruins of the Jewish ghetto. If you visit I would highly recommend that you do some sort of tour that speaks to this history. As previously mentioned I did a couple free walking tours with the Orange Umbrella company and they had one specifically about Jewish Warsaw. Reportedly, back in the 10th century the Kings from this area offered Jewish people the freedom of religion and protection at a time when they were being persecuted in Western Europe. In the early 16th century Warsaw became Christian and the Jewish residents moved outside the city walls. Aristocrats set up private towns and many Jewish residents lived there. In the 18th century Poland ceased to exist and it was split between Russia, Prussia (pre Germany) and Austria. It was then recreated after WW1. Prior to WW2 half the residents of Warsaw were Jewish. 6 million Poles died in WW2 and half of them were Jewish. In 1940 all Warsaw Jewish residents were moved into the Jewish Ghetto and 100,000 people were moved out of that area to make space. Eventually 500,000 people would reside there. Conditions were deplorable as one can image. There was massive over crowding and people were living off an estimated intake of 460 calories/day. 91,000 died that first year. In 1941 1 million Poles were killed by death squads. In 1942 the deportations to death camps started. International communities were petitioned to bomb the railways which likely would’ve ended the Holocaust but they didn’t. By 1942 there were just 300,000 people left in the Warsaw ghetto- mostly strong men used for labour. These men would go on to plot and take part in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. These men were able to hold off Nazi forces for nearly a month and is known as the largest Jewish revolt in the second World War. In 1944 the Warsaw uprising took place which led to the retreating Nazi forces basically destroying Warsaw which is why 85% of its buildings were rebuilt after the war. The Jewish Walking tour takes you to many of the memorials around the city, past the cemetery and points out the markers on the sidewalk that indicate the borders of the Jewish ghetto.

So that covers my time in Poland. I think Poland is largely overlooked as a European destination, but if Warsaw is any indication of what the rest of the country has to offer I’m quite certain I’ll be back to explore more!

Vimy Ridge France

I’ve been a little absent on my blog, but rest assured I’ve got a lot of new posts coming, once I get my thoughts in order. It’s been just over 2 weeks since Pops and I finished up the Camino, and we spend the beginning of November chilling in Paris. Chilling because it’s actually been pretty damn cold. We did some sightseeing checking things off Pops Paris bucket list and not giving our feet and legs the much needed rest that they deserved. Pops has returned to Canada, but one of the major things that he wanted to do during our time in France was to visit Vimy Ridge War Memorial. It just so happened that the first weekend in November the Veteran Affairs of Canada hosted a memorial service there. So we bought tickets and took the high speed train from Paris to Arras, the town closest to the site. The train takes about 50min. We ended up staying in Arras overnight because the memorial service times and the train times didn’t allow us to make it a day trip.

Vimy Ridge is of huge historical significance for Canadians. I’m sure most Canadians would recognize the name, but given my WWI history isn’t so great (and I’m assuming the same can be said for some of my readers especially my dear cousin Amber) I’m going to give an overall summary. WWI started in 1914 when Austria- Hungary declared war on Serbia. Because of treaties with neighbouring countries this then drew Germany, Russia, Great Britain and France into the conflict. Once Britain declared war this automatically brought Canada into the war. In 1914 Canada was still a relatively new country and this war was the first time Canadian forces fought as an independent force. By the end of the war 67,000 Canadian soldiers would be killed and 250,000 would be wounded. WWI or the “Great War” as it was known ended November 11, 1918

The battle at Vimy Ridge was fought over a 4 day period in April 1917. Basically German troops held the high ground prior to the Vimy Ridge assault and Canadian forces were credited with reclaiming the high ground from the Germans and this was essential for the advance of the British Army from the south. This victory though, came at a very steep cost. There were nearly 3,600 men killed during those bloody 4 days and over 10,000 wounded.

The Canadian National Vimy Memorial stands as a reminder to all those who served and risked their lives or lost their lives during WWI. The monument stands on soil that saw some of the most vicious fighting overlooking the Canadian battleground. The monument is imposing as its white marble stands in contrast to the surrounding hillside and skyline. The night prior to the memorial service we met some fellow Canadians (we started chatting with them trying to figure out where they got their poppy pins from) and they ended up being from Veterans Affairs Canada and were involved in the ceremony the following day. Being the nice Canadians they were they gave us their poppies and told us to meet them in the parking lot after the service for whisky shots. I liked them a lot.

The morning of the memorial service was blustering cold. The wind was raw, working itself between the seams of our jacket and scarfs. We arrived a couple hours before the memorial service was to start. The entire site is quite large consisting of a visitor center, the monument, a cemetery and then the German and Canadian tunnels and trenches. There is also work taking place to enlarge the visitor center by next year in time for the 100 year anniversary of the battle. We spent some time wandered thru the trenches and then walked back towards the monument. Much of the area is roped off with warning signs of the possibility of unexploded shells and bombs. So people aren’t allowed to walk thru the fields but nearby farmers do allow their sheep to graze thru this area. As I mentioned there is a cemetery, so we walked down to have a look. Most of the graves were unmarked inscribed with the country and sometimes the Battalion of the troops involved. Occasionally there were graves with names. We were the only visitors at the cemetery during our time there. The grave stones were lined in long rows and the cold wind blew the changing fall leaves across the cemetery. The occasional grave was adorned with flowers that had long since died or had a single poppy planted in front the petals still bright red. There was a certain heaviness in the air of all that had been lost during those 4 days nearly 100 years earlier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We took our time walking back towards the monument. The walkway up to the monument was packed with Canadian troops. Many young, but also several older servicemen. Some were Air Force, some Army, some Navy. Some wore green and others blue. There were a few ladies in the mix. Walking between them was one of those moments where you are filled with complete pride for your country, and for those who continue to risk their loves to protect it. The  backside of the memorial is adorned with 2 large statues of a man and woman on either side of the stairs both appear to be mourning. They are known as “The Mourning Parents.” Around both sides of the monument are the engraved names of those Canadian soldiers that died in France. As you walk thru the monument passing by the “Mourning Parents” you come to the front side of the monument and can stand staring up at the 2 large columns in front of you. There are several statues carved into the pillars. One statue stands out more than the others though. It’s of a young woman wearing a cloak. Her sorrow-filled face turned down towards the field below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The memorial service started a little before 11. I’m guessing there were a couple hundred people in attendance. There were some government dignitaries and the service was conducted in both French and English. Lining the front wall of the  monument were the retired servicemen and women holding flags throughout the service. Some songs were sung, poems read, wreaths laid and a moment of silence to honour the dead. It was really special to be able to attend a memorial service honoring Canadian soldiers on such a historical site. By the time the service was over we were frozen. The rawness of the air had numbed our toes and fingers and it was time to get on our way. Luckily, we ran into the Canadians we met the night before and true to their word we followed them to the parking lot for shots of whisky. This seemed like a fitting end to the service and proved an excellent way to warm up! I have never been a fan of scotch or whisky, but I can know proudly say that there is a type of whisky made in Eastern Canada that has maple syrup added to it and it is divine. And coincidentally, it would make an excellent stocking stuffer with the holidays coming up. It’s called Sortilege. So good.

After we warmed our insides with the sweet deliciousness of maple syrup whisky we walked back to the visitor center and had a tour of the underground tunnels and trenches. The Veteran Affairs of Canada has a program where Canadian university students can apply and become guides of the site for a semester. Applicants must be bilingual, but if you know a student that is interested you should encourage them to apply. It’s a really cool program. Our guide was Patrick from BC and he was awesome. He took us through the tunnels and talked to us about what it would’ve been like for the soldiers of that time, and preparation that went into the battle at Vimy Ridge. We then walked thru a small portion of the Canadian trenches. It’s hard to imagine the inhumane conditions those soldiers lived in.  How cold, and wet, and scared and hungry they must have been. It’s unimaginable really. We then stopped in the visitor center so Pops could buy himself a book and made our way back to the city of Arras and to the train that would return us to Paris.

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If you are in France (and Canadian) I would encourage you to visit Vimy Ridge or the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial which is nearby. Pay your respects to those who lost their lives in honour of our country. My patriotism always comes out when I glimpse a Canadian flag on foreign soil.

 

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset grow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.”

Written in 1915 by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae

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