Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Category: Other Travels (page 2 of 9)

Lalibela Ethiopia

Ok, so now you know the story of how our Ethiopian adventure came about. After one extremely long and dramatic travel day we found ourselves in Addis Ababa after nearly 36+ hours of no sleep. We were beyond exhausted and literally ordered room service and fell asleep. We had an early morning flight with our favourite airline Ethiopian Air, the following morning.

Bright and early the next day we caught a shuttle to the airport only to find out…..not very shockingly....that our flight was delayed a couple hours. This was a little annoying because we only had time for an overnight in Lalibela, and were planning to pack a lot into our time there. But these things happen and we didn’t want to get into a negative mood so we grabbed some cokes and some type of cake and people watched. Much to our delight we ran into a super cute Somali/UK family that had been on our Riyadh flight the day before. The mom was very nice and she had an older teenage daughter, and a boy who I’m guessing was like 13 and a young boy who was maybe 3. The 13 year old was the most polite child I’ve ever met. The 3 year old was naturally scared of strangers and didn’t initially take a liking to me, but eventually I wore him down and he kept trying to hold my hand like we were the best of buds. Operation befriend strangers child was successful. It’s a good thing his mom was keeping an eye on him otherwise I might’ve made off with him- he was super cute. So anyways because of our delay that morning it just so happened that we crossed paths with them which was a very nice surprise.

Our flight to Lalibela which is in the northern part of Ethiopia was uneventful (thank goodness!) We stopped off in a place called Bahir Dal which is on Lake Tana and then into Lalibela. Coming into Lalibela the countryside reminded me of the Grand Canyon. It’s rugged and colourful and there are little huts dotting the horizon. We jumped in a local shuttle to go to our hotel- the actual village is about 20min away from the airport. I watched out the window wide eyed. This after all is my first trip to Africa apart from Egypt and Morocco which are very different because they are Northern Arab Africa. We passed straw roofed huts, colourfully dressed locals, and the absolute best part for me was that they had RICKSHAWS!! Ever since driving a 3 wheeled auto rickshaw across India a few years back I’m obsessed with driving them. As soon as I saw the first one I turned to Kiwi and was like “I’m driving one of those today!” And luckily Kiwi is happy to go along with my crazy ideas so she was on board. We arrived at our hotel. There are understandably no super fancy hotels in this village but we stayed at the Maribella Hotel which was perfectly adequate and the staff were lovely. We met our guide for the rock churches who would come back and get us after we had eaten some lunch. I requested that our tour be by rickshaw, “preferably a rickshaw that I am driving.” Kassaye the guide was totally unphased by this and said “no problem.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We had a delicious Ethiopian lunch and I had a couple local Walia beers which were very tasty and we started to climb the 3 flights of stairs to our room. Part way up Kiwi says to me “I feel dizzy.” And I’m like “well take a rest then.” And I went ahead and unlocked the door to our room. Kiwi comes in and she’s leaning over her bed and again says “I feel dizzy.” And I’m like “well sit down then.” No sooner do the words come out of my mouth then I see movement out of the corner of my eye. I turn and watch her slow motion fall between the beds. My initial thought is that she’s fake fallen, but as I come around the side of the bed she’s laying in between the 2 twin beds, eyes open, not blinking, face pale and her lips are starting to turn a little blue. My mind was racing and I’m trying to figure out whether I yell for help- if anyone would actually hear me, and if there’s even a hospital in this village. I crouched down and felt her pulse which thankful she had and start shaking her and she eventually started blinking. Now a back story is that Kiwi is allergic to a wide variety of things and one of the requirements for us to take this trip was that she get an epi pen. So I’m like “Kiwi are you having an allergic reaction?” And she’s like “why is my iPad on the floor?” And I’m “like well you’re on the floor.” And she looks around and realizes that she is and she slowly sat up and we both laughed. I laughed mostly out of relief because it really was a scary thing to witness, and having to call a travel mate’s family to say that something bad happened is something I’ve always feared while traveling. But she was ok. I think it was a combination of the elevation and exhaustion so we took it slow the rest of the trip.

Once that medical emergency was out of the way we made our way downstairs to meet Kassaye. Outside to my great delight was Kassaye and a young rickshaw driver who was totally cool with me driving his rickshaw. So Kiwi got in the back with our guide and the rickshaw boy perched on the edge of the driver’s seat as he gave me a refresher of Rickshaw Driving 101 for Dummies. I stalled it the first time and then got it going and then he jumped in the back. I was smiling from ear to ear and both the guide and rickshaw boy were impressed! They said they’d never had a tourist drive a rickshaw in Lalibela before and by the end of the day we would be the talk of the town. So off we headed to the main cluster of rock churches. We drove through the main center of Lalibela and when locals got a look at me driving they would start clapping and cheering. The kids chased after the rickshaw. But the best for me was the look of surprise on the teenage girls faces that we passed. I loved seeing the excitement in their eyes. Kiwi kept saying “I can’t believe I’m being driven to a UNESCO site by kristinewanders in a rickshaw. This is the best!” And she was exactly, right. It was the absolute best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So we arrived at the complex that holds several rock churches. Lalibela is an interesting town in that it is all Orthodox Christians. There are no other churches in the area- in fact the closest mosque is like 60km away. It is also considered to be a holy city and is a site of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians. The churches in this region date from the 7th to 13th century and are often carved out of a solid piece of rock. There is a lot of links of Jerusalem and most of the churches have names like House of the Cross or House of Mary as examples. Our first stop that day was to visit the Northern grouping of churches which comprises 5 churches in the same complex. The Lalibela Rocks churches became a UNESCO World Heritage site back in 1978. It costs $50 US dollars a person to get into the Northern complex. To me that is pretty steep but they are very much worth being seen. There is a tiny museum on site which houses display cases with old art work and a history of the King of Lalibela and examples of the metal crosses the region is known for.

As we were checking out the museum a religious ceremony was finishing up so there were priests and other worshippers dressed in traditional clothing leaving the church complex. That made for some amazing photos. Over the next couple hours we visited several of the churches. They are carved out of a single piece of rock and each one is different from the others. Some of them the insides are bare, others like St Mary’s has the remnants of fresco paintings on the arches and ceiling. They have carved windows which allows for natural light to filter in. It’s amazing to think of how something like this was built with such precision. The archways are perfect. You need to wear good walking shoes though as the floors are uneven and you are climbing up and down to get to the churches. We were in Ethiopia during the rainy season so late in the afternoon it started to rain which turned the paths into mud and made it quite slippery. Luckily, the rains were short lived and we wandered the paths outside the church complex. We then got back into the rickshaw to pick up some supplies for one of the local schools. Kiwi had been in contact with the principle of the primary school there and was told that the kids needed soccer balls. She had kindly bought some nice Adidas balls in Saudi which were taken away from us in Riyadh by airport officials who said you couldn’t fly with soccer balls, but secretly we think they just wanted them for themselves. Anyways we bought 10 new soccer balls for the kids and squeezed them into the rickshaw with us. The young rickshaw owner had an old Nokia phone that had  Whitney Houston’s “I will always love you” as his ringtone. Lucky for us he was quite popular so it would ring pretty often and Kiwi and I would start singing along until he answered it and we would all laugh!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next morning our guide Kassaye picked us up. He had been in the market the previous night and the talk of the town was of the girl who was driving the rickshaw. So now I’m basically #EthiopiaFamous for my mad driving skillz. We set off for St George’s Church.  Naturally we had requested a rickshaw again so I drove us there. St George’s Church is the church you see when you when you google Ethiopia rock churches. It is beyond stunning. A perfect rock cross roofed church carved into the ground. When you first view it it appears small, but as you walk closer you can see that it’s not nearly as small as you had originally thought. I was actually speechless and pretty much just stood there feeling like all the drama to get to this place was so very much worth it. There’s a path that descends down to the base of the church and we walked around it and took photos from outside and then inside. After that we climbed back up and took selfies with Kassaye and the rickshaw owner. Kiwi even convinced them to make kissy lips which is her specialty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We then switched vehicles and on our way to the airport we tracked down the school principle and visited the school to drop off the soccer balls. Sadly, school was out for the summer so there weren’t any kids around. Maybe this was a good thing because I likely would’ve tried to adopt/steal several of them! We toured the school- like 2000 children attend broken into morning and afternoon classes with adult education classes held in the evenings. We then drove out of town stopping on the way to visit Bet Neakutoleab a church that is built into the wall of a rock cliff. It’s a bit of a walk down a rocky path to get to it but it’s pretty cool. I got to meet one of the local priests who showed me all the treasures of the church which consisted of the typical metal crosses, incense and an old colourful handwritten bible. From here we got dropped off at the airport. The airport there is super small. Like teeny tiny. Naturally our flight was delayed almost an hour. We had each purchased a metal Lalibela cross as a souvenir and didn’t even think that they probably wouldn’t be allowed as carry on. We made sad eyes to the security guy and he said he would ask someone if an exception could be made so we could bring them on board as we didn’t want to have to check a bag. He later came back to us and said he would ask the flight attendant if she would lock them up for the flight and return them to us when we landed in Addis. Much to our delight she agreed which made me dislike Ethiopian Air a tiny bit less.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you go to Lalibela the staff at the Maribella Hotel is really great. The local guide we used is Kassaye. He speaks great English and you can contact him via his Facebook page here.

Happy travels….

Ethiopian Adventures

Last month I went to Ethiopia for 5 days. You’re probably saying to yourself “hmmm Ethiopia is an interesting choice?!” My reasons for going were threefold. First, it’s an easy direct flight from Riyadh to Addis Ababa so it’s a great use of 5 days. Secondly, these UNESCO rock churches that I’ve been wanting to see are there and thirdly, one of the lovely housekeepers that I work with was taking her family home for the summer and would be in Addis during this time. So we booked a ticket. My kiwi sidekick has been to Africa a bunch and had previously flown with Ethiopian Air. Reportedly, they used to be amazing. Our choices to get there were to fly with them, or with Saudia stopping in Jeddah. The direct flight with Ethiopia Air was the logical choice.

I’m part of a Girls travel group on Facebook and in the week leading up to our trip I saw a couple different girls post about getting stuck in Addis  with Ethiopian Air, or having their luggage turn up with most of their things missing, or their luggage never turning up. I told my kiwi sidekick this but she was unphased. The day of our flight I came across another post about Ethiopia Air.  The person commented if you want some entertainment to read the reviews on Ethiopia Air’s Facebook page. In that moment for whatever reason I did want some entertainment, and so I searched them. The reviews were awful. I’m already a nervous flier so reading this was not an especially smart move. Basically, all the reviews had the same thing in common- things went from bad to worse. People said that if there was an option they would rate them zero stars instead of one. Phrases like “worst airline” “horrific experience” “total incompetence” keep repeating themselves, and my anxiety was building. This was red flag numero uno.

So after working a 12hour day shift we went home from work to finish packing. I grabbed an hour cat nap and we were off to the airport for our 3am flight. We arrived at the airport and it’s normal Riyadh chaos. Oddly, our flight isn’t even listed on the screen so for a second we think maybe we’re at the wrong terminal. Turns out we’re not, just for whatever reason our flight and airline aren’t on the monitor. Hmmm. Weird. Red flag numero dos. So we check in, and it’s mayhem. People have like a million bags and like 5 pieces of carry-on per person. As you can imagine getting thru security took all the remaining patience in us after working 12hours. So we wait at the boarding gate which is confusing as we aren’t sure if the flight is even on time because again it’s still not on the monitor. People are literally camped out in the walkways and it’s pretty much impossible to move around. I go find someone to get some intel on when we are actually leaving- because I’m such a stressed flier I like to take my prescription meds an hour before we leave so that as we are taking off I’m mostly asleep. So they say the flight is delayed a bit. A little while later a guy says we will be boarding soon, so I medicate. We all form a line (I’m joking of course).  There’s no single line per say, just like 10 lines that all end up in people crowding together and the people behind you pushing. Part of the plane begins to board and then there is a commotion and suddenly we are all back in the boarding area. Doors are closed and we wait. At first people are standing in place and then people just start dropping to the floor unsure whether to go take seats or if the issue will be resolved quickly.

Eventually a guy comes around and says “mechanical problem.” And I’m like what does that mean? And he just repeats the same phrase over and over which in that moment was highly irritating and I immediately decided I didn’t like this guy. Over the next 3 hours we would mill around the airport trying to get an update. There were very few westerners on the plane. As the delay went on it became apparent that Ethiopia Air well knew of the delay before we checked into the flight, hence why it never ended up on the list of departures. This of course was done on purpose so they didn’t have to put people up in hotels. Seeing as most of the flight was Africans I imagine they felt they could get away with treating people like this. This made me more angry. By 7am they had not given us much info or offered any of these people food or water. Many of the people on this flight wouldn’t have had the money to pay airport prices for things like food and drinks. Because I was already so annoyed I made a big deal about this to some of the airport staff and then they suddenly brought food and water out. We waited some more. We started to make back up plans. Where should we go instead we discussed? There was a flight to Dubai at 5pm. We could go home and repack and come back to the airport. Check into a 5 star hotel and lay by the pool and sip cocktails and get fanned by a pool boy. By 9am we were demanding to speak with the supervisor. I was told that he couldn’t come now because he was on the plane. We demanded refunds. They said that wasn’t a problem but that we had to wait for the supervisor. They then told us and a select few passengers that the flight was actually cancelled. Again they would refund us, but we needed to wait on the supervisor to officially state it was cancelled. So we waited some more- and bonded with a few other passengers over the disaster that is Ethiopian Air. So then the “supervisor” shows up and it’s this same jerk that we had to deal with earlier only now he’s saying that the flight is leaving right now. I’m all like “so the mechanical thing is fixed?” And he’s all like “inshallah” and my kiwi sidekick and I look at each other like are we actually doing this? And I swallow my anxiety medication and we board the plane. Eight hours after we were due to leave we actually left.

So we get on the plane and there are a bunch of crying kids because they are overtired and hungry and frustrated just like us. I put an eye mask on and my headphones in and I’m out. A while later I’m woken by someone shaking me. I groggily pull my headphones out and lift my eye mask and it’s a lady from South Africa whom we’d been chatting with earlier. She knew we were nurses and she’s saying to us “they need you. They’ve been paging a medical emergency for the last while, there’s a lady who might be in labour.” Kiwi and I look at each other and shrug our shoulders and try and get our shoes on and go see what the scenario is. I’ve never actually seen a birth take place. But I did recently compete a Neonatal Resuscitation course so I’m feeling mildly confident with my skills. The woman is on the floor. She does not speak English or Arabic. She looks to be having some pain but does not appear to be in active labour. She speaks Swahili. Thankfully there is one random dude who is acting as a translator. Kiwi leans over to me and says she knows the Swahili word for giraffe. Funny. But not helpful. There is also a girl there who has just completed nursing school. She has examined the woman and her water has not broken and she is not bleeding. I ask the man to translate a series of questions. When did the pain start? How many babies has she had? How far along is she? Can she still feel the baby moving? The pain started yesterday. It’s her 5th pregnancy, and she is 6-7 months along although to me she looks small. The baby is still moving.

I ask the flight attendants for the emergency kit. There’s not a ton in it that will be useful if she has this baby. We take her vital signs and give her something to drink as I’m sure she’s dehydrated given our lengthy delay at the airport. We are an hour outside of Addis at this point. A medical team will meet us when we land. The crew is helpful and professional. As we begin the decent they move the woman and I to business class. I have the man translate prior to him returning to his seat that if she feels severe pain or if her water breaks she should squeeze my arm. The plane lands and as we touch down she squeezes my forearm and her eyes go wide. So here we are taxiing down the runway and I’m under her skirt checking the situation. No bleeding. Her water did not break. Once we were stopped the medical team arrived and I reported off to them and the woman was taken away in a wheelchair. I wonder whatever happened to her.

And so that’s how we found ourselves in Addis Ababa deliriously tired. This was far from the only adventures we had on the trip, but luckily the kiwi and I travel great together so mostly we end up just laughing when things went awry. Would I fly Ethiopia Airlines again? No. Not unless it was free and it was the only option, but I’m sure there are worse airlines. More of our Ethiopian adventures to come….

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…….

 

Abu Dhabi

Over the past 2 years I’ve been to Dubai several times, but hadn’t had the chance to make my way to Abu Dhabi. The United Arab Emirates is a conglomerate of seven emirates- each emirate is governed by a monarch and together they form a federal council. Some of the smaller emirates are less well known and I’m guessing apart from my Middle Eastern readers many of you may not have heard of Ajman or Sharjah. But I’m pretty certain you know quite a bit about Dubai and Abu Dhabi. I’ve blogged about Dubai before- it’s a great weekend break from Saudi and there’s tons of things to do and see. Many of those things are over the top tourists things like indoor skiing, swimming with dolphins, and tend to have a luxury type travel flare to them. Abu Dhabi by contrast is Dubai’s classier more cultured and sophisticated sister. The economy of the UAE is made up of 2 things- oil and tourism. Dubai is the 5th most popular tourist destination in the world with an estimated 15 million overnight tourists expected in 2016.

Back in August I had a weeks vacation and split it between Dubai and a night in Kuwait. I had originally wanted to just stay in Abu Dhabi but the flight times didn’t work great with meeting up with my friend in Kuwait so I opted to just take a day trip to Abu Dhabi instead. There are so many tour options to get from Dubai to Abu Dhabi depending on what you are wanting to see. For me, the main priority of visiting Abu Dhabi was to visit the Sheikh Zayed Mosque and photograph it. I’d seen so many pictures of this iconic mosque and long ago I fell in love with Islamic architecture so this was really my sole purpose for going. I joined a large day bus tour of which I’m not normally a fan, but this was the cheapest and easiest option.

It takes about 90 minutes by bus to get from Dubai to Abu Dhabi. On route the tour guide pointed out the many many new buildings and tourists attractions being built in the emirates. They do things big here- like record breaking big. So most of the things that are being built are the largest such and such, and tallest such and such, and the first ever such and such of the Middle East. As you can imagine much of the countryside in between Dubai and Abi Dhabi is made up of sandy desert, although it does get significantly greener towards Abu Dhabi. Our first stop on the tour was a stop at the very fancy Viceroy hotel on Yas Island that overlooks the Yas Marina circuit of the Formula 1 races. The hotel as you can imagine is very opulent and it would probably cost me a months salary to spend a night there. The hotel overlooks the race track and we stopped for a cold drink and some obligatory photos. The tour then visited the Abu Dhabi waterfront where  we stopped for some photos along the corniche of the Emirates Palace another fancy 5 star hotel. Then there was a trip to a nearby mall for lunch (can you see why I’m never especially jazzed about big group tours?)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then, after lunch we headed for the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. Finally!! Now it should be said that even though everyone on the tour bus had been instructed (and warned multiple times) about the dress code to visit the mosque, many of my fellow tourists didn’t get the message. There seemed to be mass confusion about why shorts and uncovered shoulders weren’t allowed. Why they wouldn’t be allowed in with a sexy tight fitting dresses. It was mildly entertaining to watch- really equal parts entertaining and annoying since the tour guide had already instructed these ladies that they would need to purchase abayas at the mall if they wanted to visit the mosque. So after we all off loaded the tour bus and started walking towards the entrance a security guard came over and started picking those deemed inappropriately dressed out of the group. Luckily, it is possible to also buy an abaya from the gift shop on site. Being a professional abaya wearer I had packed mine from Saudi just for this occasion. Per the mosque website it states that all women MUST wear an abaya, but then also that lose fitting clothes and ankle length skirts are ok. Clothing must not be transparent. Men cannot wear shorts. I do recall that there were women there not wearing abayas, but if you have one I’d err on the side of just bringing it. Women must cover their hair.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sheikh Zayed Mosque was built in the late 1990s and completed in 2007. It was built by the president for whom the mosque is named after, sadly he passed away in 2004. It’s the largest mosque in the UAE and can hold a reported 40,000 worshipers at a time. The outer courtyard of the mosque is accented with manicured gardens and shallow reflective pools. I didn’t have a chance to see the mosque at night, but from pictures I have seen it is beautifully lit. As you can imagine the mosque is enormous- the whole area is the size of five football fields. It’s built out of white marble and some of that marble is inlaid with pearl and other semi precious stones into colourful flower patterns that reminded me of the Taj Mahal. There are 4 minarets, 82 domes of varying size, 96 columns in the prayer hall with one the worlds largest carpets weighing some 35 tons. We spend about an hour visiting the mosque. Seeing as it was August when I visited it was very hot and humid and the outside courtyard offers very little shade. You then wind your way thru the outer walkway accented by arches into the great room. It’s all very aesthetically pleasing. Everything flows and is very calming and symmetrical as  Islamic architecture always is. It’s very cool if you have the chance to be there as the call to prayer goes off. All around are tourists taking selfies. As you walk into the main room shoes are removed and you can feel the cold marble underfoot until you reach the carpet inside. The domes allow light to flow into the room and it’s adorned with decorative chandeliers. I must say that this mosque lived up to my expectations!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From here we started our drive back to Dubai. If you’re in Dubai I would highly recommend making a trip to Abu Dhabi. Seeing the Sheikh Zayed mosque is well worth it!

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