Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Category: Germany

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!

 

 

 

Terezin Concentration Camp

First off, I don’t claim to be a historian, nor am I any sort of expert about World War II history, so most of this post is a summary based on tour guide information and bits and pieces of what I have read about the events surrounding Czechoslovakia and the Holocaust. I have always felt a certain tie to this awful period of history since as I’ve recently blogged about- I grew up believing my maternal grandparents were German. While I have now learned that my Oma (Grandmother) was actually born in Czechoslovakia and my Opa (Grandfather) in Poland, they both were forced out of their native countries and made to return to Germany as they were ethnic Germans. They both were children/teenagers during World War II. I actually grew up believing that my Oma didn’t believe the Holocaust had taken place because as I’ve previously mentioned, things of the past just weren’t discussed. It’s really crazy to me that I can’t recall ever asking them about what that time of their lives was like. How afraid they were. Whether they had any Jewish friends or neighbours. I think it’s also worth noting that when one learns about events like the Holocaust or other incidents of ethnic cleansing in school as a child the words don’t really make sense. It’s unfathomable. The numbers are so large, the place so far away, the events so horrific that it’s hard to accept or to understand. In the last year I’ve visited Germany twice- to Munich and Frankfurt, but for very quick visits only. Terezin in the Czech Republic was my first time to visit a concentration camp.

Terezin as it is know in Czech is known as Theresienstadt Concentration Camp in German. It’s located about an hour north of Prague. The site is now a memorial to the Jewish and Christian souls that lost their lives here. It is also possible to tour the actual town of Terezin which is nearby the camp and at one time served as the Jewish ghetto and to fool the outside world into thinking that the Jewish people were being treated well. Today the town is sparsely populated but there are 2 museums there that are worth visiting (and if you do a tour will likely include) the Magdeburg Barracks which has a replicated women’s dormitory as well as exhibits on the arts, music, theatre works and literature that was produced in Terezin. The other museum is the Ghetto Museum which was opened in the Terezin schoolhouse.

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A brief overview of Czechoslovakia leaking up to and after World War II is as follows: In 1918 the country of Czechoslovakia was formed. In 1933 after Nazis came to power they demanded the return of Czech lands and the ethnic German population that was living there. In 1938 leaders from Europe met in Munich and it was agreed that this land would be returned to Germany under the Munich Pact in exchange for a peace commitment from Hitler. As a result the democratic leaders of the country resigned. Later that same year other portions of land were seized by Hungary and Poland. In March 1939 Germany invaded the provinces of Bohemia and Moravia. Germany occupied Czechoslovakia until it surrendered at the end of the war. Many Jews emigrated in 1939. The Jewish populations in the provinces of Bohemia and Moravia were almost completely wiped out. It is estimated that 263,000 Czech Jews were killed.

During the German occupation it’s believed that 144,000 Jews were sent to Terezin. Although Terezin was not an extermination camp some 33,000 died there due to its deplorable conditions, over crowded living conditions and mass spreading of disease. Nearly 90,000 were sent to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. 17,000 survived. In 1944 the Red Cross visited and the Nazis presented Terezin as an ideal Jewish community and a propaganda film was made at the time showing the Jewish population living freely and taking part in everyday life, which was entirely fictional. Many Jews were transferred to Auschwitz to avoid the appearance of overcrowding prior to the Red Cross visit. Terezin was home to many literary and artistic geniuses from the time period including poets, composers, musicians, and painters. It is reported that of the 15,000 children that were housed in the children’s home only 93 survived. 93.

So today it’s possible to tour both the camp and the ghetto. Driving up to the site you see the massive red brick fortress walls of the prison. As you walk into the site you pass the memorial cemeteries for the Jewish people and Christians that died here. Our tour took us thru the warden’s office were prisoners were registered, and into cells where people were literally packed in like cattle. Hundreds living in rooms fit for 20. Poor sanitation, and air flow led to many deaths. The air inside the cells is stifling with little movement. It was a somber experience hearing the inhumane conditions people were forced to live under.  On the concentration camp grounds stood the enormous and lavish Wardens house in stark contrast to the way prisoners were forced to live. It’s hard to accurately describe how one feels wandering a site like this. Horrified. Disgusted. But I think to some degree the word numb feels most accurate. Numb because it’s overwhelming, and it takes time to process this enormous loss of life. To stand where these people previously stood. To bear witness while trying to come to grips with how something like this happened in the first place. To say that 263,000 Czech Jews were killed during the Holocaust is like saying that every person in the town I went to college was murdered. Two and a half times. It’s mind blowing. And numbing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After World War 2 many of the Nazis who worked at Terezin were charged and executed. Some were imprisoned. Some fled and escaped punishment. Today the memory of the events and the people who were killed live on in countless memorials around the world. If you haven’t visited a site like Terezin Concentration Camp and have the opportunity to I would implore you to do so. Education about past events is a precursor for the prevention of history repeating itself. While I strongly believe that history is very much worth reading I think it’s important to experience historical places first hand. To walk thru a archway entrance to a concentration camp and read the German words of irony “Arbeit Macht Frie” which translated to “Work Sets you Free.” To hear the crunch of the gravel under your feet, to hear the clink and scraping of a metal door closing. To enter a cell and look out the window to the outside world. To see bunk beds and try to physically imagine 200 prisoners sleeping in such cramped conditions sharing one toilet. This is how we make events personal. This is how we carry the burden of historical events with us to bear witness to the worst of humanity and to guard against such events happening in the future. Lest we never forget….

 

Solo Travel

I’ve just returned from a solo 11 day trip to Italy. It was awesome and I loved every minute of it. There’s no other way to describe how solo travel feels,  other than to say I felt free. And empowered. And brave at times. Each day was mine to do with it what I want. No one else to consider, only what I felt like doing, or eating, or whom I felt like interacting with. I was out there drifting in the world with only myself to answer to. Free and open to a world of possibilities.

While I’ve traveled quite a bit, most of my travels have included a travel partner.  I have traveled alone before though. To Portugal. To an ashram in India. To Malaysia and a yoga retreat in Bali. To Frankfurt to see the Christmas markets. These are some of my favourite travel memories. And truth be told I met some of the nicest and dearest people on these trips. A kind and funny Czech guy who I hope I cross paths with again soon. A quirky British girl who matches my inappropriate sense of humor and schemed with me on how to smuggle alcohol into our ashram.  A Spanish guy who just thinking about him makes me shake my head and laugh. A lovely woman from Montreal whom I know I’ll meet out in the world again. And most recently on this trip, I met the kindest family who adopted me in Rome and made sure I didn’t have to eat dinner alone and then also a couple from Texas whom I shared many laughs with. So even when I’m traveling solo I have found that I’m never really alone for very long if I don’t want to be.

Portugal- my 1st solo trip

With my lovely Ashram friends

 

 

 

 

 

 

Often when I’m traveling alone I meet people who tell me how brave they think it is, and then immediately say “but I could never do it.” And I always respond by saying “I reckon you could.” Because I firmly believe that if I can do it, then anyone can. I also think it’s especially important for a woman to see the world on her own. There is something so empowering about standing on your own 2 feet, and trusting in yourself, your smarts and your intuition.

Don’t get me wrong- it won’t always be easy, but I’m pretty sure it will be worth it. I’m a terrible researcher. I like to have an accommodation booked, but I’ve gotten really lazy about actually researching things. I cracked open my Lonely Planet guide maybe 2 days before I left for this trip. So sometimes that means I’m not as prepared as I wish I was. Hand in hand with this is the fact that I don’t speak a lick of Italian. Well besides Bonjourno, and Spaghetti, and Ciao. But as with most places almost everyone speaks English so you can get by just fine. Often when I travel with others I leave the navigating to them. I never hold the map, I never look up directions. I’m hopelessly directionally challenged . And yet when I travel solo I make it work. Sure sometimes (a lot of the time) I get lost. But I have found that people are for the most part helpful, and I never stay lost for very long. Every now and then I still make rookie travel mistakes like ordering something without checking to see how much it costs- apparently directly across the street from the Vatican Diet Coke costs 8 euros. For a can. Of Diet Coke. Facepalm. The one downside of solo travel is that if you plan on documenting your travels you need to get very good at taking selfies (or buy a dreaded selfie stick) or speak up and ask others to take photos with you. So often I have fewer photos of myself on solo trips than I would if I was traveling with a partner.

Getting the “selfie” down

Or just ask a fellow traveler to snap a pic

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If the thought of traveling alone abroad still seems too scary why not try a weekend away in a city you’ve always wanted to visit in your own country. Sign up for a yoga or meditation retreat- something that encourages being alone while still being around others. Or book into a group tour where you’ll be sure to meet others. I have found that when I’m alone I’m more open to meeting others, and it’s easier for others to approach me. So unless you are going to some truly isolating location, you will cross paths with other travelers.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that you should make solo travel a priority. I think it’s essential for your growth and development. You will never learn more about your strengths than you will when you are exploring a foreign city solo. You will most likely feel more independent than you have in your entire life. You will learn to listen to your intuition. You will learn to put your wants and needs and desires first. You will make travel memories that you will be proud of because they will be yours, and yours alone. You made them happen. You trusted yourself enough to go and know that you would just figure it out. So do yourself a huge favor and go.

My Top 10 from 2015

2015 was a pretty epic year of traveling for me. I’ve just switched over to my new 2016 calendar and I counted all the days I was out of Saudi traveling last year. It was 109. 109!!!! How is that even possible? Since the last time I checked I work a full-time gig as a VIP nurse in Saudi Arabia. But apparently I was on the go a lot. I visited 16 countries over the last year, 11 of them new for me, and I thought I would share my top 10 favourite memories from the last year. Enjoy!!

1. Cyprus

Way back in February I took a trip to Cyprus and my kiwi sidekick and I rented a car and drove around the quaint island. I have 2 favourite memories from this trip. The first was the a day we spend driving in the hills between Limassol and Paphos. The  day was cold and dreary and we visited a local winery and then made our way to a small village that was devastated and deserted by an earthquake in 1969. As we arrived in the village a torrential downpour started which only added to the creepiness of our visit, and we got soaked walking around taking photos. The village is on the way to a town called Lemona. The other great memory I have from that trip was the time a stranger gave us his BMW to drive for an afternoon. You can read about that travel tale here.

Creepy right?!

2. Norway

Two words. Lofoten Islands. Quite possibly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. They are picturesque and have this kinda of awestruck beauty that isolated and desolate places have. Every which way you turn your head was a postcard perfect view. The gagged snow covered peaks drop dramatically into the arctic sea and I would go back in a second. I think an Atheist would have a hard time believing there isn’t a higher power of some sort after visiting this island chain. See for yourself…..

3. Sweden

The whole of Scandinavia is awesome, and travel there is pretty easy. It would be a real shame if you went to Sweden and didn’t visit the Ice Hotel, even if only for the day! The Ice Hotel is an artistic marvel in that every year the design and decor is completely different. Different artists take part every year so the theme rooms change, which you have to admit is pretty cool. It is pricey, but well worth the stay. You can sleep in one of the actual ice rooms, or stay in a heated cabin like we did. Oh, and if you go make sure to do the tasting menu at the restaurant there- it is phenomenal. Maybe you’ll luck out and the Northern Lights will come out like they did for us!!

4. Finland

Dog sledding in Lapland has got to be one of the best things I’ve ever done. It was bloody cold, but so worth it.

5. Maldives

This view……I dream about it often. This is one of the most relaxed vacations I have ever had. Ever. It was hard to decide between spa, pool, eat, nap, read, repeat. This is also the place where I attempted to overcome my fear of the water and tried scuba diving.

6. Bahrain

So VIP culture is huge in the Middles East. You rarely see anything VIP in North America unless it’s in a mocking nature, but over in these parts everything is VIP. VIP movie theaters, hospitals, parking spots, entrances. It’s all a little over the top. That is until you catch a ride over the causeway to Bahrain in a vehicle with diplomatic plates and get to cross via the VIP lanes. Yep. And funfact….they have tea boys who come right up to you car to serve you tea, while you wait in line to cross the border.

7. Morocco

I blogged at great length about how difficult it was traveling in Morocco, but one the best things we did while there was take a cooking class thru Souk Cuisine. This class included a shopping trip to buy the needed ingredients in the Medina and was a great way to learn about local ingredients whilst mixing with the locals. Even though Morocco was sometimes very challenging the food was ALWAYS delicious. I would pretty much recommend doing a cooking class or food tour whenever you travel. I’m doing one later this month in Spain and can’t wait!!

8. Bali Indonesia

At the end of August I took part in a retreat on the northern part of the Indonesian island of Bali with 17 other ladies from all over the world. My time there was so needed and really came at a time when I needed to slow down and work through some things on my own. The location was beautiful, as were the many lovely ladies I met. This was a time of much needed R&R and reflection, and I’m so thankful for the wonderful friendships that were formed from my time in Bali.

9. Oktoberfest Germany

Even though I ended up with a GI bug from hell, Oktoberfest was a seriously fun time (while it lasted.) I mean what’s not to love about a group of traditionally costumed and hugely intoxicated people smashing beer steins together while singing traditional German songs at the top of ones lungs. It was a good time, and YOLO you really only do live once so you should go.

10. Sparkling Hills Spa in British Columbia Canada

Last month I took my mom to this spa about an hour from where she lives. This is a place people have been raving about since it opened a few years back and I was keen to see what all the hype was about! The hotel is pretty much the luxury accommodations in the Okanagan region of British Columbia and known for its spa, saunas and heated outdoor infinity pools. The views from the rooms are amazing, as are the 7 saunas and the indoor floating pool with classical music playing under the water. Well worth the visit, and it was a great mother-daughter retreat.

So really that wraps up 2015. It was a pretty great year. I’m really excited to see what is in store for 2016. I’m excited for the new faces I will meet, the new sights I will see, and the changes that will take place inside of me.  I found this quote that sums up my thoughts about the upcoming year perfectly, and my hopes for both you and I…..

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world.

You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, for all of us, and my wish for myself.

Make new mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before.

Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t prefect, whatever it is; art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing. Do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.”

Neil Gaiman

Frankfurt Christmas Market

On my way back from Canada and the U.S. earlier this month I had a 3 night layover in Frankfurt. For at least the last decade I had wanted to see a European Christmas market so since I was flying back via Frankfurt this was the perfect time to do it. A couple years ago I went to Leavenworth WA over the holiday season so I knew a little about what to expect. Delicious warm mulled wine. Dressing in warm winter clothes. German food. Holiday cheer. And weird wooden painted German Christmas decorations. It was all those things and more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had some unused hotel credits that I decided to put to use at a super nice hotel in Frankfurt. I stayed at the Rocco Forte Villa Kennedy which used to be an enormous family home from the early 1900’s but is now a fancy boutique hotel. It was beautiful and the staff were great. The only down side was that it’s a 20min walk to get to the museums and the Christmas Market. This suited me just fine as the weather was crisp and it was a lovely walk along the river to get where I wanted to go. Frankfurt has a bunch of great museums, but as with most things in Europe, many are closed on Mondays so you have to plan accordingly. I spend an afternoon wandering the galleries in the Stadel Museum which houses 700 years of art and includes the works of Rembrandt, Monet and Picasso. Later I checked out an exhibit at the Schirn Museum which houses more modern art exhibits. The one I saw was called Storm Women and featured only women artists from the early 20th century. It’s a great exhibition if you find yourself in Frankfurt between now and February.

The rest of my time in Frankfurt was spent relaxing on my own. After spending over 2 weeks catching up with everyone back home I was feeling exhausted and needing some solo time. The older I get the more I am starting to realize that I am an extroverted introvert. I LOVE being around people and being a social butterfly. Like for a night. And then I’m drained and don’t want to talk with anyone for like a full 24hours. The older I get the harder it is for me to make social commitments 2 night in a row. It wears me out. I need some down time to recharge. Frankfurt was a great place for this.

I spent 2 afternoons at the Frankfurt Christmas Market wandering around. Naturally, it was packed with people. There are vendors selling gifts like candles and ornaments, and of course those wooden painted toys/ornaments/nativity scenes that the Germans seem to be so fond of. There are food vendors selling crepes, pretzels, sausages, cookies and candies. You won’t go hungry. And then there are the many, many vendors selling “Gluhwein” or mulled wine as we know it back home. If you don’t know what this is you are missing out on life. It’s warm red wine that’s heated with cinnamon, orange, and cloves and it’s delicious. It’s served in mugs which you can either buy, or pay a refundable deposit when you return them. It’s a great way to stay warm in the chilly air, and also a great way to make friends with locals and other tourists.

x x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So that wraps up my latest holiday, but don’t worry I’ve got a bunch of more trips in store. I’m going to Spain for a week in January splitting my time between Barcelona and Madrid. Then the beginning of February I’ll spend a weekend in Dubai and am looking into traveling to Azerbaijan. I’ve got some more time off in March that I haven’t yet made plans for, and then in April I’ll be spending 2 weeks in Iran. 2016 is looking like it’s going to be a great year!!

Have you been to any of the European Christmas Markets? What did you think?

Oktoberfest Germany

A few months ago my kiwi sidekick and I had the genius and super impulsive idea to book tickets to Oktoberfest. We found a direct flight from Riyadh to Munich and a return ticket via Frankfurt so we opted to pop over for 5 days. We just kept saying YOLO (You Only Live Once) which is a super annoying phrase, but one that I am nonetheless very fond of. So book plane tickets we did. In hindsight, we probably should’ve looked a bit more into hotel prices. Because when we did, we were a little alarmed to find that really the cheapest rooms we could find were between $200-250 per night, and that they were located in the glitzy (sleazy) red-light district. Lap dance anyone?

So after working a 12 hour shift we raced home, showered and grabbed our bags for our midnight flight. This had us landing in Munich just before 6am on very little sleep. We had tried to get an early check in, but alas, they were fully booked. We had also considered booking a cheap airport hotel to grab a few hours sleep, but we were far to cheap to pay the $175 rate. So we did what any cheap travelers would do and found a bench in the arrivals terminal and tried to grab some shut eye. Then we went for a greasy breakfast and an 8am beer. Don’t judge. It was Oktoberfest. Once we got our breakfast buzz on we went to a ridiculously over priced authentic German store and bought traditional German beer maid outfits. I’m still cringing to think what we paid, but luckily, I can re-wear it for Halloween, as Ms Claus for Christmas, and any other costumed occasion that comes up. We then took the train into Munich.

By some stroke of luck we were able to finagle the hotel into letting us into the room, so we could change quick-like, and get to the Oktoberfest grounds. I had joined an Oktoberfest group on Facebook, and we had plans to meet up with a group who had booked several tables at Hacker Festzelt, one of the large tents. After making our way thru a sea of traditionally dressed people we met up with our group and entered the tent. They are enormous and most fit thousands of people. Our group was a mix mash of Germans, Brits, a couple Kiwis and a Canuck. We spent 5 hours drinking steins of beer and eating traditional German food. We also spent 5 hours yelling Prost at the top of our lungs, making up our own words to the popular German songs being sung and clinking our steins together as often as was humanly possible. By 5pm I was spend, over tired, and mildly mis-behaving. We made our way back thru the sea of now overly drunk traditionally dressed people and back to our hotel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 2 found us not nearly as hungover as I had imagined we would be. We grabbed breakfast at the hotel and headed to the Marienplatz clock tower with the hoards of other tourists to watch the 11am show. Basically there is music and apparent life-sized figures that depict some type of story. It was underwhelming on account that my eye sight is crap, and there were way too many people. We continued along to Munich Residenz a former palace which used to be home to Bavarian royalty. It was pretty cool. We spent a while roaming thru the courtyards and rooms. It is opulence at it’s finest. The Hall of Antiquities was my favourite as it had wall to ceiling paintings and statues- it would’ve creeped me out to be there after dark, but in the day light I could’ve spent more time taking it all in. From here we went for a traditional German meal (because you can really never eat too much pork) and hustled back to the hotel to don our Germanic attire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back to Oktoberfest we went to meet up with a smaller group from the previous day. This time we were at a different tent in the upstairs balcony area of Schottenhamel Festzelt. It was much nicer being in a smaller group and especially nice since we had met most people the day before. Again more beer drinking, more pork eating, more Probst yelling, and more beer stein clinking. Personally, I liked this tent better because they played music in English which we could sing along to. At one point I was standing up from the table and this youngish guy sidled over to be and started chatting. 1st he tried German, which I promptly told him I didn’t speak. Then he switched to English and the story went something like this “my friend over there. See him. He is very drunk. He spilled a drink all over the table. Now our table is very wet. His father is very rich and has bought us this table, but he is not coming. We have some friends that are also coming.” All the while I’m nodding along because I’m confused as to where this story is going. Then he says “so before our friends come we would like to have a couple beers.” And I’m all like “ok.” Cause I still haven’t clued in yet. And then he tries to order beer from me. Because he thinks I’m a German waitress. Yep. In hindsight I wish I had been quicker on my feet, and told him that each beer was 25euros and at least made a little money off the whole thing. Next time I’ll be on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We only had our table reservation for 3 hours, then it becomes a game of cat and mouse to see how long you can stay in the tent before security kicks you out. And since it was late in the day, and also the last weekend of Oktoberfest things were a real shitshow. Everyone is pushing, and trying to get past security, and fights are breaking out, and overly testosteroned young men are having fist fights. My kiwi sidekick and our new British friends decided to take the party to a nearby bar as it was highly unlikely that we would get into any of the other Oktoberfest tents. The Oktoberfest grounds are pretty large and surrounded by grassy hills which people also use to pass out and vomit all over. Seriously. People are wasted and stumbling, and sometimes you just need to close your eyes in the closest place that looks comfortable. I get it. We’ve all been there. The nurse in me had to resist rolling all these drunks onto their sides into the recovery position for fear of them aspirating.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So after consuming some more beverages we wandered back to our hotel. Things were looking pretty good until shortly after we got back when I got the worst GI bug of recent time. Now I know you’re thinking- girl you were just drunk. But I’m a classy drunk. I never vomit (well hardly ever.) I won’t go into detail, but suffice to say that I lost 2 days of our trip. It was awful. I was miserable. If a fire had broken out in the hotel I doubt I would’ve had the strength to evacuate. My kiwi sidekick was a real trooper and nursed me back to health, well mostly.

On the 4th day I was able to venture out. We took the tram to Nymphenburg Palace. The tram drops you about a 10min walk to the main gate- for me this took what little energy I had, but I’m glad we ventured out. Part of the palace is under renovations, but the gardens are beautiful. Funfact; you could actually skip paying to go inside, and instead take pictures from the outside and wander the 490 acre gardens. Bring a picnic and sit next to the canal or on the shore of one of the two lakes. The place itself was completed in 1675 and served as the summer home of Bavarian royalty. The rooms are ornately decorated with some very impressive portraits lining the halls. Be sure to visit the Marstallmuseum before you leave. It’s full of old carriages and winter sleds which are a contrasting mix of opulence and absurdness. We wrapped up our last day with me finally starting to get an appetite for things other than 7-up and soup broth. Unfortunately, this coincided with my kiwi mate getting whatever bug I had. We might be the worst travelers of all time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Munich- you were hard on me, but I fully intent to come back. We have unfinished business!! As they say in Germany- Prost!!!

 

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