Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Author: kristinewanders (page 1 of 17)

My Top 10 of 2019

With the New Year upon us it’s time for my yearly top 10 travel destinations of the past year. It was another epic year of travel. I spent 103 days traveling outside of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with a few fun weekend trips exploring Saudi thrown into the mix. More on that in a bit. I took 14 separate trips, which for someone who’s terrified of flying is no easy feat. I visited 15 different countries, 6 of them new to me. 5 of those were solo trips. A few of the trips were with friends and several were with my guy. I visited Dubai 3 times because who doesn’t love a quick weekend escape to Dubai. Liechtenstein was my 82nd country.

2019 was the year I became a puppy mom. We rescued a super cute puppy who is a saluki mix and he’s quite honestly the best memory for me of the year. I ended the year twisting my knee on a cobble stoned road in Nice, France that resulted in me having to cancel the rest of my trip. I ended up tearing my meniscus and nearly 4 weeks later I’m still having a lot of difficulty getting around. I did make a travel medical claim for it but am still waiting for that to be paid. I’ll be blogging about my experiences with that whole process later as I get asked a lot about who I get medical insurance through while traveling. This is the first claim I’ve had to make though so I’ll let you know who it’s with and if I’d recommend them in the next couple weeks.

There’s a lot of changes coming up in 2020. I’ve decided not to re-contract as a nurse in Saudi and my current contract will finish at the beginning of February. I’ll be staying in Saudi for a while though as my best friend is flying in on a tourist visa and we are doing a girls road trip from Jeddah up the coast and circling back to Riyadh. I’ll be posting a lot about it on Instagram- I’m sure it will be very entertaining. I’m also looking into hosting a couple weekend trips here in Saudi by partnering with a tour company which I think will be a lot of fun. I’ve already got plans to come back to Saudi under a tourist visa to keep exploring, so Saudi I’m not done with you yet! Anyways, let’s get to my travel list….

1. Turkey

Last January I took a week long solo trip to Turkey. I’d previously visited Turkey back in 2011 and had fallen in love with the architecture. I split my time between Istanbul and Cappadocia. I arrived in Istanbul and spent 2 days exploring the sites on the European side. It was exactly as I remembered it. The sites were stunning (Blue Mosque, Hajia Sophia, Topkapi) and the men were as irritating as my first visit. Truth be told I was pretty exhausted after those 2 days of constantly being followed, cat called and chatted up. Even wearing my headphones did not stop the numerous unwanted advances. I was over it.

I spent 2 nights in Cappadocia for the sole purpose of hot air ballooning over the snow covered landscape. As many things do, this was added to my travel list after seeing some photos on Instagram. Oh the power of the Gram. I stayed in Uchisar which is a quieter part of Cappadocia and fortunately got an upgrade to a suite with a fireplace and a deep soaking tub. I made good use of both. It was super relaxing, and the hot air ballooning was easily one of my favourite memories of the year, despite it being well below freezing. I would highly, highly recommend doing this. I’d hot air ballooned in the spring on my previous trip but I loved the winter scenery.

From here I returned to Istanbul but stayed on the Asian side of the city. Let me tell you this was such a change for the better. It is less touristy and way more chill so I could walk wherever I wanted and no one even looked my way. Yessssss. There’s lots to explore on the Asian side as well and it’s easy to walk over the Bosporus and get back to the European side. Things I’d recommend doing on the Asian side: check out the awesome street art (graffiti murals) in the Karakoy neighbourhood, get a traditional Turkish hamam with massage, and visit the Dolmabahce Palace.

2. Cairo, Egypt

In February I flew for a quick weekend away to Cairo with a group of friends. I’d been to Egypt a couple times before, but had only really got to spend a few hours in Cairo on a layover on the way to Europe several years ago. At that time we did a quick city tour and saw some of the sites via bus, but didn’t really cover much. When you research visiting Cairo most blog posts will tell you one day is enough. Get in see the pyramids and get out. Well I must be the exception because I could’ve very easily and happily spend a third day there.

Besides seeing the pyramids and the sphinx there’s actually quite a bit to see. We visited the pyramids mid morning and the crowds weren’t insane. You can enter into the larger pyramid but be warned it’s very muggy once you’re inside. If you are at all even remotely claustrophobic I’d give it a pass. I did it but the entire time I wished I could’ve gone back in time 15 min to before I’d agreed to it and said no. Once you’re in it’s hard to abort the mission if there’s a lot of people in it. You’ve been warned! Also I just want to say that I had the best time interacting with the local people. I was handed a baby for photos. Toddlers were pushed at me to have photos taken. They were terrified, I was loving it. Some young guy climbed part way up the pyramid and held his baby out in a cringe worthy Michael Jackson moment to show us his baby. But over all the locals were very welcoming and I felt safe. I do realize that Egypt is not the most stable of countries and that anything can happen at anytime, but I really enjoyed it.

So here’s what you shouldn’t miss…. Visit the Muhammed Al Pasha mosque and Saladin Citadel. The mosque is stunning with it’s picture perfect archways and the views overlooking the city are spectacular. Visit the Valley Temple of Chefren near the Sphinx and take some cool pillar photos. Check out Zooba restaurant. I’m a big foodie and this place serves local street food. The restaurant is small but well worth the wait. Try koshari my favourite Egyptian dish made of chick peas, lentils, rice, pasta, fried onions and a tomato sauce. So yumm. Visit the Egyptian museum which was looted during the Egyptian revolution of 2011- about half of the stolen items have now been returned. The museum is amazing. Don’t visit Cairo without going. A new larger museum is scheduled to open in 2020. We also visited the Khan el-Khalili Bazaar which is colourful and bustling and pretty overwhelming. This is the place to buy your Egyptian souvenirs from. Had we had an extra day we would’ve done a Nile river cruise and also visited Saqqara and the pyramid of Djoser. Next time…..

3. Tunisia

Tunisia had low-key been on my list for a while, but after seeing Instagram posts about it on fellow blogger Expat Panda’s Instagram it skyrocketed to the top of my list. So last March I spent a week exploring this stunning country. First off, it was all the things I loved about Morocco, with out all the things I hated about Morocco. It was stunning architecture, and the cutest little hotels that looked like they were designed solely for Instagram. I loved the food and the patterns of the dishes and the largely unpopulated tourist sites. I also loved that at no point during the trip were we grabbed or followed or yelled at or sexually leered at.

I organized us a driver for the time that we were there and we had a pretty jam-packed itinerary except for the last couple nights where we checked into a fancy hotel in Tunis. Here were the highlights from that trip: Spend some time exploring the Medina of Tunis- stop at the small museum called Dar Lasram. We stumbled upon this building as it was next door to where we stayed and it has stunning tile designs and archways that won’t disappoint. Visit the UNESCO site Ruins of Carthage and marvel at the Roman technology. The nearby amphitheater is very well preserved and dates from the end of the first century. Sidi Bou Said is an adorable town and an absolute must as the whole place is varying shades of blue. Photographers will fall in love.

The town of Kairouan makes for a nice stop en route to Sousse. The mosque there is one of the largest Islamic monuments in northern Africa. Don’t miss the smaller Mosque of the Barber. It’s beautiful. Spend a night in Sousse and try the fish couscous and explore the Medina. On the way to Sfax stop at the El Jem and tour the 3rd century UNESCO Roman Amphitheater. It’s impressive and the third largest Roman amphitheater in the world. We pretty much had the place to ourselves. There were maybe 5 other tourists there when we visited- that’s exactly how I like it!

For you Star Wars fans there are several places to visit where filming took place- I’d recommend Matmata and Medenine as those were the ones we saw, however there are several more. Take the ferry over to Djerba Island. If you like urban art than stay in Djerbahood where there are 250 murals that were painted in 2014. Many are faded, but I loved exploring the town and coming across these artistic delights.

4. Taif, Saudi Arabia

In March I also took a weekend trip with a big group of friends to see the Rose Festival in Taif. Taif is located southwest of Riyadh and is an easy 1hr flight. The Rose Festival takes place from mid-March to the end of April each year. This is the time of year that the Damask roses bloom. These roses are world famous and the oil is quite expensive and is used in many popular perfumes like Lancome and Givenchy.

If you visit during this season you can visit the rose farms and learn how the oil is collected, see the roses in bloom, and buy a dizzying array of rose products. But that’s not all there is to do in Taif. You can take in the breathtaking views of the Al-Hada mountains and see the equally famous red butted baboons. I’m not a fan of monkeys so I tend to steer clear and watch them from afar. The regional Al-Shareef museum is well worth a visit and gives you a historical perspective of the area. You can take a cable car down to the village of Al Kar and take in the mountain views- this was a highlight for many in our group.

A visit to Taif should also include a trip to the local market. Honey from this region is said to be the best in Saudi so definitely take some home with you. We feasted on local Taif bread that is made of 7 types of flour, and ate some of the best chicken of my life prepared in a traditional Yemeni way. For those of you Saudi based I’ll keep you posted on an upcoming weekend to visit Taif in March or April to see the roses. You won’t be disappointed.

5. Kazakhstan

So if you’ve been following my blog for a while then you know I like to visit some off the beaten path locales. Kazakhstan was one of 2 “Stans” I was lucky enough to visit in 2019. For a week in June, Boobae and I flew to Almaty, Kazakhstan. It was the first of the two Eid holidays and the flight schedule and price was right. We based ourselves in Almaty and did day trips from there. We also ate some fantastic food (not Kazakh food) and sipped wine to my hearts content.

Almaty is a really green city with tons of parks so it’s great for just leisurely strolling. The Opera House is a really cool building and Zenkov’s Cathedral has a real fairy tale air to it. We did a food tour which was essentially a walking tour that included food and we visited the Green Market. I love to visit markets when I’m traveling to see the fresh produce and mix with the locals. On the food tour we also visited a local restaurant to taste some local dishes. If you are vegetarian skip along to the next paragraph. I hate to say it but Kazakh food was just not great. First they eat horse and I just couldn’t get my head around it. Boiled meat with no seasoning is never good and fermented camel milk tastes exactly how it sounds. I’ll leave it at that.

We visited Big Almaty Lake which has stunning mountain views and the turquoise waters of this natural reservoir are the perfect backdrop for photos. We visited Tamgaly-Tas which is a canyon set alongside a river to see some petroglyphs. As it turns out the petroglyphs were at a place hours away called Tamgaly. This particular travel day was a bit of a miss as our driver had no idea where we were going and in the end we saw some stunning scenery, but none of the actual things we had set out to see. Such is life.

We visited the Museum of Rare books which involved us getting quite lost in a huge historical building but we eventually found what we were looking for. We visited a nomadic cultural center with traditional Kazakh people wearing traditional clothes and learned about the culture and traditional sports like archery and horsemanship. The best thing we did though was visit this abandoned hospital that treated WW2 veterans. It was creepy and I loved every second of it. So that’s Kazakhstan, but obviously it’s a huge country so there’s loads more a person could explore.

6. Al Soudah, Saudi Arabia

In August I flew to the Asir region of Saudi Arabia which is in the south, bordering Yemen. I was invited to attend the Al Soudah Season festival and was super pumped to explore a region of Saudi I hadn’t previously visited. The festival was held on Al Soudah mountain which is about a 40min drive from the city of Abha. This is the highest point in Saudi Arabia and the landscape and mountain views are spectacular.

If you visit the Asir region make sure you venture down to the village of Rijal Almaa on the valley floor. This historical village was on the trade route from Yemen up to Mekkah and it is on the tentative list of upcoming sites to be awarded UNESCO status. The village consists of around 60 palaces made of clay, mud and wood and you can wander from the better preserved ones into the ruins. I was fortunate enough to explore with fellow blogger Blue Abaya and we took a bunch of photos. Late afternoon really is the best time as you will the perfect light. Apart from Al Soudah festival, there is also the “Flowerman Festival” which took place in August of 2019. 2020 dates not yet released.

7. Mauritius

In August we escaped the oppressive Saudi summer for 7 nights of “winter” south of the equator on the island of Mauritius. I booked our trip so we stayed on every side of the island. We stayed 2 nights on the west coast, 3 nights on the northern coast at a rather disappointing all-inclusive, 1 night on the east coast and 1 night on the south. Mauritius is a seriously stunning country. It was winter while we were there so the temps were like 20-25C which to me is perfect. Here were a few of the highlights….

Our taxi driver in Port Louis named Kalam was the absolute best. He had a pet bird named Bebe who sometimes drove with him but also had a slightly jealous side (Bebe not Kalam) and I was so all about that damn bird. Boobae wasn’t nearly as impressed as I was, but I’ll tell you that 4 months later I’m still getting whatsapp pictures of Bebe. We spent an afternoon exploring the capital city of Port Louis- if you go, make sure to visit the UNESCO site of Aapravasi Ghat. It’s an absolute must and tells the history of slavery on the island. This is extremely important seeing that 70% of Mauritians today are ancestors to these indentured laborers.

If you are a foodie than choose your all-inclusive hotel based off the food reviews otherwise you might end up disappointed like me. Food is a big part of travel for me, and I don’t want to eat every meal at a buffet that feels like it’s some distant cousin’s wedding. The drinks however were very on point. Make sure to sit and watch the sunset every day. Mauritian sunsets are amazing and I took photos every single evening.

As I mentioned we spend 1 night on the east coast and besides that damn bird Bebe this was my favourite part. We stayed at this boutique hotel called Salt of Palmar and although it wasn’t cheap it is seriously my favourite hotel. Like ever. And no I’m sadly not getting paid to say that. This place was so aesthetically pleasing, the colour scheme and decor were totally my jam, and the food was out of this world. Like no joke. The entire concept of the hotel is to locally source everything and be environmentally conscious. There are no single use plastic products. Every guest is given an aluminum water bottle that they can fill up around the resort. I vow to return and stay there again.

We spent a day touring to the south of the island. We visited the temple of Ganga Talao, the Black River Gorges, the Chamarel waterfall, went zip lining and saw the changing colours of the Seven Coloured Earth before spending our last night in a lovely bungalow with what is quite possibly the best view on the island over looking Le Morne. It was a lovely trip.

8. Armenia

In September I took a solo trip to Armenia. I based myself in Yerevan and explored it a couple days and then booked a lovely guide to do day trips out of the city. There is a ton of things to see in Armenia. For me it was pretty similar in landscape to when I visited Georgia (the country) and the food was pretty similar. I’m sorry to say though that I preferred Georgian wine to Armenian. I visited so many monasteries on this trip but these were the standout sites from the trip….

Sevanavank Monastery dates from the 9th century and overlooks Sevan Lake and that area is beautiful. I loved the white stones of Haghartsin Monastery complex from the 10th-13th century. It was interestingly recently renovated by the ruler of Sharjah in the UAE. The day we visited it was rainy and foggy which made it all the more cool as you pretty much drove out of the forest and then bam the monastery was visible. If you are in the town of Dilijan make sure to stop at the restaurant Tava. You won’t be sorry.

The 13th century Noravank Monastery is tucked into the red rock cliffs and I image it would be spectacular in the winter when the ground is covered in snow. Zvartnots cathedral ruins date from the 7th century and are well worth a stop, and they are a UNESCO site. Geghard Monastery is build into the cliff and the acoustics inside are amazing. There were professional singers singing while I was there and it literally brought tears to my eyes. It was a really moving moment. The Temple of Garni dates from the 1st century and is the only remaining pagan temple in the region. It is fantastic.

If you go to Armenia be sure to learn about the history of the country. Specifically the history with Turkey and the Armenian genocide. It is heartbreaking, but pertinent to understand how territory shifted, so that what is present day eastern Turkey actually used to be western Armenia. There is also a lot of biblical significance to this area. Mount Ararat is where Noah’s ark is said to have rested after the great flood. Also if you go I highly recommend Sofi the guide I used. It felt like I was traveling with an old friend!

9. Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan was my 81st country and the highlight of this past years travels for me. I’ll be raving about this country to anyone who asks me the question “where should I travel?” for a long time coming. I’m a big lover of Islamic architecture and I absolutely love tiled patterns so Uzbekistan was high up on my list. In October I spent 10 days traveling solo across the country. It is quite easily one of the safest countries I’ve visited. The only time I felt even remotely unsafe was with the lack of street lights in the old part of Bukhara- but that was just my over active imagination and not a genuine threat to my safety.

I flew into Tashkent and spent a night there and then flew to the small town of Khiva to the northwest of Tashkent. I spent 2 nights here and I’m glad I planned the trip this way. As I moved closer back towards Tashkent the cities got larger. I loved exploring Khiva. All the tourist sites are compact and easy to walk to. Every which way you turn is a photographers dream. The building courtyards are decorated in varying patterns of blue, white and turquoise tiles and I couldn’t get enough of it. Also fun fact: Uzbekistan food is really good. Khiva is known for pumpkin dumplings and this green dill pasta topped with like a tomato stew. Both were really good. Be sure to try Plov in every city- it’s a very traditional dish from the region made of rice, with meat. Each city has a different variation and I actually quite liked it. Make sure to walk the old city walls of Khiva at sunset.

From here I visited Bukhara which is larger and therefore the historical sites are more spread out. The highlights from here were: learning about the Jewish history of the city, and visiting the Kalyan minaret and mosque. The archways are amazing and you’ll want to take a bunch of photos. Go early in the morning prior to the tour buses arriving for the best pictures. Bukhara is known for its fancy pottery and it’s the place to buy dishes. Which naturally I did– and I’m total shit at bartering so I probably overpaid, but I love them. Just outside of the city is Sitorai Mohi Hossa the Emir’s summer palace. It is well worth a visit and the main entrance gate is the most colourful I saw in Uzbekistan.

I took the train from Bukhara to Samarkand. The complex of Registan is made up of three large madrasahs and was the heart of the ancient Timur dynasty. They date from the 1400-1600’s. The Gur-e-Amir complex dates from the 15th century and if you have the chance to visit at sunrise I would recommend it. You’ll have the whole site to yourself and the caretaker will likely unlock the door so you can see the gold ornate inner chamber before opening hours. It’s fantastic. My most favourite spot though was Shah-I-Zinda complex which has the most colourful mausoleums I’ve ever seen. So. Many. Photos. If you like abandoned places there’s a place called Ishratkhana which is an abandoned mausoleum from the 15th century located a little ways out of the main city center. It’s pretty cool.

I ended the trip by taking the train back to Tashkent. I ended up meeting an older Egyptian/British retired doctor at the train station and we chatted the whole train ride. We both had similar travel styles and it just so happened that his next couple of trips are to Ethiopia and Armenia (places I’ve been) so I was able to offer him advice. We even ended up being on the same flight back to Dubai so we chatted at the airport and still keep in touch. In Tashkent I hired a great local guide named Aziza and we walked some 19km around the city. She was awesome and we saw the main sites and made our way through the Chorsu Bazaar. Again, I love visiting local markets. Tashkent subway stations are some of the nicest in the region and they are well worth exploring. The Hotel Uzbekistan has really impressive city views from the top floor. It really was a jam packed 10 days.

10. Sicily, Italy

In November we flew to Palermo Sicily to meet up with my best friend and her boo. We spent two nights there and explored the nearby town of Monreale which was stunning views of the city below. We did a tasting menu at A’Cuncuma Restaurant which was delicious. We drove to Trepani and spent a night there. Drive up the hill overlooking the city to the town of Erice which has great views and some really cool graffiti murals. Stop by La Pasticceria di Maria Grammatico which has yummy pastries. From Trepani we drove towards Agrigento. We stopped off at two really cool spots. In 1968 this area was hit by an earthquake that destroyed several towns. The site of Ruderi di Gibellina is a large scale landscape art exhibition by deceased artist Albert Burri. The entire destroyed city was covered in concrete with sections mapping out the streets and alleys. It is a large scale memorial and I’ve never seen anything like it. The nearby town of Ruderi di Poggioreale is largely in ruins and uninhabitable, but you can still explore it. Please note though- many of the buildings were in varying state of collapse so caution is needed.

In Agrigento we spent a night and the highlight was the Valley of the Temples which is exactly as it sounds. It’s a nice rolling walk past 4 temples in varying state of ruin with the ocean in the distance. Just lovely. From here Boobae and I returned to Palermo for 2 more nights where we had some downtime and explored the city. If you haven’t been to this part of Italy, add Sicily to your list!

So that wraps up my top 10 of 2019. I hope it gave you some new ideas for travel destinations! I wish you all a happy, healthy year in 2020.

My Guide to Solo Travel

I tend to get asked a lot of questions related to solo travel, so I thought I’d write a guide to how I solo travel. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert on solo travel, but I have traveled quite a bit on my own. Earlier this month I visited Liechtenstein my 82th country, and my 35th solo adventure. I’ve come a long way since my early days of travel.

I can vividly remember how scared I was on my first solo trip. I spent a week in Portugal and for some reason it didn’t dawn on me until I was on the airplane that I was flying to a non- English speaking country. Obviously I knew they spoke Portuguese, but like it didn’t register. I was also still pretty new to travel in general and didn’t yet know that English is literally spoken to some degree everywhere. If you are a native English speaker like me, then it’s best to accept that we are privileged. We will never fully understand the trials of travel like those of people whom English is not their first language. People are always telling me how brave I am to travel alone, but the truly brave ones are those whose mother tongue is anything but English.

So here’s how I go about deciding where my next trip will be. Once I have leave from work approved I can start the planning process. I often have a top 10 list in my head of places I want to go. That list is compiled of recommendations from other travelers, some cool picture I saw on Instagram, a video some vlogger made and posted to Facebook, or just somewhere off the beaten path place I’ve always been curious about. I’m also very focused that there are only a few countries left in Europe that I haven’t visited, so I’m always trying to fit those in. My current list is Singapore, Laos, the Faroe Islands, Sudan, San Sebastian-Spain, Greenland, Iran, Pakistan, the Seychelles, Madagascar, and Socotra Island in Yemen. Obviously Iran and Yemen are not great ideas right now so they are ruled out. Then I get on google and do a quick visa search to see which places I need a visa for and how complicated it is, and what the weather is like at that time of year. I’m not a very good hot/humid weather traveler, and I try to avoid monsoon season. I also tend to rule out Europe or anywhere touristy during peak season- I’m much more of a shoulder season traveler and prefer the spring or fall vs summer where kids are out of school and line ups for any touristy sites are ridiculous. Then I hit up Kayak and look at airfare.

Generally, I want to travel somewhere that has only one connection, that leaves sometime after midnight (so I can work day shift that day and immediately fly out) and has less that 12hrs of travel time. This rules out several places on my list. Then it really comes down to price and what flight schedule works best, and I’ll have a quick look on Booking.com just to make sure accommodations aren’t too expensive. Then I just book the damn ticket. Of note: I just use Kayak as a reference for flight prices but I only book either directly with the airline or with Expedia. The reason for this is that a few years ago when I went to Morocco I booked direct with Kayak and a couple days after booking they messaged me and were like “oh your flights were never confirmed and the price went up like $300.” And the customer service was shitty so that was the first and only time I ever booked through them, or any of the other websites they use like Vayama. Often this whole flight booking process happens in the course of an afternoon or evening, and I’ll call my parents and say “oh hi, so in xxx month I’m going to blah blah blah.”

In my older years I tend to be a slower traveler and don’t want to move cities/hotels every day. I prefer to stay 2-4nights in a place. I like down time and don’t care to pack a million things into my itinerary so I’m busy from breakfast until late at night. In my younger years I could travel like that. Now I want to see a few things but then also sit in a cafe or wine bar and read and just relax. So after booking airfare I’ll look at where I’m going to stay. I’ll often have a quick look at Booking or Airbnb to see what’s available and then use Tripadvisor and read some reviews of recent solo travelers to see what they had to say. I prefer to stay somewhere really central. I don’t want to waste a ton of time on public transportation to get into the city center and I want to be close to restaurants and bars in easy walking distance. For me food and wine are a big part of travel and I love going out to eat in nice restaurants. If I’m really tired or staying somewhere sketchy then I’ll stay in and order room service- otherwise I want to go out and eat local food.

After the hotel or Airbnb is booked I start planning what I want to see. I generally search to see if there is a “free walking tour” and will make sure to do that on my first or second day in a new place. “Free walking tours” are a godsend. While not technically free (the guides get paid off tips) I find that it’s a great way to see the main tourist sites of a city, learn about the history, and meet other travelers if I’m feeling social. All for a $10 tip. These types of tours also give me an idea of what I might want to go back to see, and give me a general lay of the city since I’m navigationally challenged. I highly recommend them.

I’ll then google restaurants and wine bars. I will often try and eat at a fancy restaurant each trip- I’m a huge fan of tasting menus since I will literally try anything once and tasting menus often have expertly paired wine menus. There’s nothing I love more than someone pairing food and wine together for me! I will also research if there are any art exhibits going on while I’m traveling and add those to my list. I’ll usually search “top 10 things to see in such and such” and make a list of the interesting ones and the hours. It’s good to note that Monday’s most museums are closed and in parts of Europe Sunday’s stores are closed so take this into account when planning your itinerary.

Because I’m into kinda weird things I will research if there are any abandoned places nearby that you can visit. While I like to do touristy things I also like to do things that are a little off the beaten path. I love the stories associated with why building were abandoned and I love to see the architecture from those forgotten times. I’m big into urban art and graffiti and will google which parts of the city are known for those and plan those into my visit. Things like this are often coined “dark tourism” and they are becoming very popular- to the point that there are now walking graffiti tours and tours that visit abandoned places.

I then take the list of all the things I might want to see along with the hotel or Airbnb that I’ll be staying at and I put them into google maps and save the locations. That way it’s very easy to see where things are in relation to where I’m staying, and the map works when I’m offline, and I never feel like I can get lost. You can also download offline maps from maps.me or other apps so you’ll always have one with you. I never used to get a data plan and just largely relied on wifi (which is most everywhere) but the last year or so I started getting a data plan while I’m traveling solo- it’s just nice from a safety standpoint. And so I can look things up on the fly. And post insta stories as needed.

Earlier this year I wrote a post (vent) about solo female travel and you can read that here. I wanted to share a few quick safety tips that have helped me over the years. I always carry a door stop in my bag. This was a tip that I read about somewhere years ago and it gives me a little extra security. Basically if I’m staying anywhere shady I will use that from the inside of my room to give me an extra sense of protection- granted I realize someone could still bang the door down but it gives me a little extra peace of mind. You can buy door stops online that have an alarm so if the door was pushed open an alarm would ring out and hopefully deter anyone from further pushing in. I also carry only cross-shoulder purses because they are more difficult to steal. Pacsafe makes some great ones and I’ve owned several over the years- they have special locks so you could lock your bag to a chair to prevent it from being stolen at a cafe and they are slash proof so someone can’t just cut the strap and run off with your bag. I also prefer a bag with a good inner zipper and and fold-over top piece. My current bag is this one because I wanted something stylish, but also roomy enough to fit my iPad into. I love it.

In terms of personal safety- I do go out at night when I’m traveling solo, but just not very late. I tend to go for dinner earlier say 6-7pm and am usually back to my hotel by 9pm. While I do visit wine bars I don’t tend to go to clubs or anything super late unless I’m staying in a hostel (which rarely happens) and a group of other travelers are going out. If you are someone who likes some nightlife and you are traveling solo I would recommend booking an Airbnb Experience. They now have them in lots of cities and you could join one that is a pub crawl and have the extra safety of a group. When I’m in a taxi solo I always have my address entered into google maps to make sure I’m going the right way. In Uzbekistan I got into a taxi to go meet my guide and his friends for drinks and the taxi driver started driving me literally out of town. I showed him where I needed to go on the map and it turns out there was another place with a similar name so he was in fact not kidnapping me. But better to be safe than sorry. You can also take a picture of the taxi license plate and send it to a family member or friend for extra safety. Once in India I was in the back of a rickshaw in Delhi and I got a really creepy vibe from the driver so I pretended that my phone rang and had this loud conversation (with no one) about how I was at such and such street and would arrive in 10min.

I also tend to lock my passport up if I have the options and split my money and credit cards between a couple spots so in the event I was robbed they wouldn’t get everything. Back in the days that I carried a nice camera I would always have a couple SD cards and I would switch them out so that if the camera was stolen I wouldn’t lose all the pictures. Once in Japan I had a new camera and accidentally re-formated the memory card and erased all my photos near the end of the trip. That was in 2006 and I still haven’t fully recovered.

So that’s how I go about planning a trip (solo or otherwise) and a few of my years proven travel tips. I’ve got loads of updates coming soon, and my yearly top 10 travel destinations post is coming out next week!

Happiest of Holidays

Mauritius

So earlier this week Boobae and I returned from a week long trip to Mauritius. Now I know people are always saying they left their heart in some random exotic locale, but honestly guys, I really think I left a piece of mine on the eastern shore of Mauritius. Was it the sugary unlimited cocktails? The lulling sound of the waves hitting the rocky shore? The wind blowing through my hair? Or the ever changing shades of blue as I gazed at the Indian Ocean? High chances it was a combo of all of them. Mauritius I’m pretty sure we will meet again.

Some of you reading this might be asking “hmmm, where the heck is Mauritius?” Up until a few months ago I would’ve had a hard time pointing it out on a map, and would’ve just drawn my hand in a circle from India to Sri Lanka, to the entire coast of Africa and been like “it’s somewhere in this spot.” So to be a little more specific, the island country of Mauritius lies in the Indian Ocean and is part of the continent of Africa. It is about 2000km from the mainland of the continent. Mauritius is south of the Seychelles and east of Madagascar. I know that as my Pops is reading this he’s likely pulling out his atlas to get a clearer idea. The closest island to Mauritius is the French island of Reunion, which is about 200km away.

Mauritius was an uninhabited island until it was discovered by the Portuguese in the early 1500’s. For me it’s hard to imagine the island being uninhabited because it looks like the setting of a real life Jurassic Park, and I can totally envision native island people roasting boar on a beach, but I can’t dispute history. The Portuguese didn’t stay long. The Dutch landed there in 1598 and then abandoned it in the early 1700’s and then the French moved in pretty much right after. French history of the island is important as people still speak French. English is the official language, but most Mauritians we heard were speaking French or Creole. Anyways, back to history lessons by Kristine… back in 1814 the French gave Mauritius to the British as part of what is known as the Treaty of Paris, and Mauritius remained under British rule until its independence in 1968.

Slavery was abolished in 1835 and this led to the labour experiment called indentured labour. Basically between the late 1840’s and 1910 nearly 500,000 labourers arrived in Mauritius from China, the Indian subcontinent (many from India), Southeast Asia, Yemen, and from Madagascar and other parts of Africa. To be an in indentured meant that these labourers had a contract and had supposed freedom over their lives, but in reality the work conditions were harsh and they had little rights. These labourers were brought over to work on sugar estates. Afterwards about two thirds of the indentured labourers remained and today 70% of Mauritians are ancestors of those workers. The “experiment” in Mauritius was viewed as a success, and led to the migration of more than 2 million labourers around the world. If you visit Mauritius you should make a point of visiting Aapravasi Ghat a UNESCO site in Port Louis (the capital) that pays homage to this historical period and the labourers.

Some of the indentured labourers.

Ok, so now that you know where Mauritius is and a little about the history, let me tell you about what Boobae and I got up to. I wanted this trip to be equal parts taking in the sites and relaxation/day drinking. We had 7 nights on the island and I basically broke them up so that we stayed 2 nights on the west coast, 3 nights on the north coast, 1 night on the east coast and 1 night in the south. Most travelers to Mauritius just stay in one place and opt to do day trips from there. I’m not most travelers though and I like to plan my own itineraries.

We flew Saudia from Riyadh to Mauritius. My Saudi peeps have a couple options to get to Mauritius pretty easily. From Riyadh you could fly to Dubai and then fly direct to Mauritius, or you could take Saudia with a stop-over (you don’t get off the plane) in Jeddah. For us coming from Riyadh it was about 9hrs of travel time to fly to Jeddah- wait for the plane to board the Jeddah passengers- and then fly to Mauritius. Saudia is a decent airline, however; both our flights were delayed, and unfortunately that bathroom on our flight back to Saudi was the worst I’ve ever seen on a plane. Let me rephrase- it was the worst airplane bathroom I’ve seen in 79 countries of traveling. But anyways....

We arrived in Mauritius, collected our bags and got dropped off at Villa Anakao, which is about 20min south of Port Louis. The Villa is like a 3 star small hotel which more than met our needs. We checked in and were offered beers and sat on the balcony taking in the gorgeous pool area and ocean. We had already decided that we would visit the Flying Dodo brewery nearby for dinner so we went inside to freshen up. Boobae unzips his suitcase and pulls out a ladies flipflop. Yes a ladies flipflop. Oh shit. Identical black American Tourister suitcase. After a few comical minutes of figuring out what to do, the Villa helped to call the airport to tell them of the mix-up, and arrange a taxi to take us back to the airport to exchange bags.

We stayed in the yellow room.

So the taxi comes and the drivers name is Kalam and he’s super chatty and telling us about Mauritius and naturally I’m equally chatty and asking him questions about his family on the way to the airport. We get there and the bag exchange goes down without a hitch and Kalam is driving us to the brewery and he’s telling us about “baby” who was sad and wanted to come to work with him. And so I’m like is “baby” a boy or girl and how old are they? Kalam corrects me that “Bebe” is a boy and he’s a bird. And “sometimes” he comes to work with him. And I’m now super into this bird. And so Kalam calls home on speaker phone and his wife answers and he tells her to put “Bebe” on. And “Bebe” starts squawking and I’m on a speaker call with a bird. Could Mauritius get any better?? Well just wait….

So we got to the brewery and Boobae gets to try some craft beer and I have some wine and then Kalam comes back to get us, and BEBE IS IN THE CAR. He’s perched on his shoulder riding shotgun and I’m so damn excited. I don’t even like birds, but I’m bigtime crushing on Bebe. So we get back to the Villa and Kalam tells me to put my hand out and he covers my hand with his and then kisses his hand. But Bebe thinks he is kissing my hand and gets jealous AF and starts making these jealous bird noises. But in the end we made up and he perched on my finger for a hot second.

“BEBE” is a bright green parakeet.

The next day we had Kalam take us into Port Louis. We visited the Citadel from the 1800’s that has amazing views of the city. We then walked down to Aapravasi Ghat as I’ve already mentioned- a must do if you are in Port Louis. From here we walked over for lunch on the waterfront and headed back to the Villa for some relaxation and pool time. And to sip wine while watching a spectacular sunset. Kalam picked us up and took us to the nearby village of Albion for dinner and dropped us back. About 15min after he dropped us off he urgently called me to come outside quickly. He had Bebe. And Boobae was like a little irritated and told me that “weird things always happen when I’m with you.” And I ran outside to see Bebe and we got our picture taken with him and it was the best. And Bebe even kissed me on the cheek. Swoon.

On top of the Citdel.
Sunset views from Villa Anakao.
Hello Christmas Card 2019. Also Boobae never smiles in pictures, but he is clearly digging Bebe as much as I am!

The next day we had a driver take us to the north coast where we checked into an all-inclusive hotel. En route we stopped off at the botanical gardens in Pamplemousses. If you are into gardens then check it out- if you’re not then give it a pass. The main reason we were in Pamplemousses was that I had seen pictures of this abandoned orphanage and I was super keen to check it out. As in it was at the top of my Mauritius bucket list. But as it turns out the orphanage was fenced off and you needed special government permission to visit it, or risk getting arrested. And since Boobae is far too pretty for jail we just drove by and I took some sneaky pictures from the window. We also visited Chateau de Labourdonnais which is a restored plantation house. It is quite beautiful and included in the admission is a rum tasting which was basically all you want shots of rum. Turns out I do not especially like shots of rum so we didn’t get very much bang for our buck. We ate lunch at the restaurant on the Chateau property called Le Table du Chateau which was delicious but quite pricey. The lobster with vanilla butter was especially good.

The Botanical Gardens.
The abandoned orphanage that I wanted to visit, but sadly couldn’t.
Chateau Labourdonnais.
That lobster was the bomb.

We arrived at the all-inclusive. I’m not a big resort traveler. In fact I’ve only done all-inclusive one other time in the Maldives so that’s what I compare it to. We decided on three nights of doing nothing. I won’t name the resort we used, because I wouldn’t recommend it. The service was shit, and the food was pretty much on the same level as a buffet at your cousin’s wedding. The drink menu was on point though, and we never had to fight for chairs at the pool or beach. Our days there consisted of breakfast buffet. Getting another coffee from the bar. Finding 2 open lounge chairs. Reading/wasting time on social media. “Oh hey it’s 11am.” Direct to the bar. Now to be fair the bar opened at 9am but we are respectable day drinkers so 11am was go-time/show time. Then lunch. Bar. Pool. Bar. Read a bit. Bar. Catch the sunset. Bar. Back to the room to get ready for dinner. Dinner. And back to bar for some type of live music and to bed by 11pm. Next day- identical repeat of the previous day.

Love me a slushy fruity boozy drink.
Amazing sunsets on the north coast.
Boobae posing with my Lensball.

After the all-inclusive we booked a driver to take us to the east coast. This was the place I was most excited about staying, but because during July and August the trade winds are strongest to the east coast we decided to just stay one night. This was the only regret I had on the trip- I wish we’d canceled the all-inclusive and just stayed at the hotel we booked. Upon my research I found a hotel that opened last year. Salt by Palmar is environmentally conscious and everything is locally sourced. They provide a paperless check-in and get this….your phone opens your room. Mind blown. The attention to detail is impressive. The hotel is a total Instagrammers dream, but staying there is an experience. The hotel offers a variety of activities that are more culture oriented allowing you to visit markets, or learn a skill with locals. They don’t have single use plastic products and all guests are given a reusable water bottle that you can fill up at water stations around the small resort. And if you are a foodie like me this will be heaven for you. Every meal we had was interesting and they menu features a map with the names of the farmer who they get the produce from and the fisherman who provides the fresh fish. The entire concept was amazing and I would recommend it. It’s not a cheap hotel, but for me it was well worth it. We also got couples massages which gave us the chance to try their “Halotherapy” room, which is a room filled with Himalayan pink salt crystal and soft changing lights. It’s supposed to balance the flow of energy and calm your mind.

This was the best cocktail I’ve ever had. My favourite dessert is orange gelato and this was like drinking one.
Crab and tuna tacos.
Inside the salt room.

At dinner that night there was an Asian family seated next to us. A mom. A Dad. And their rambunctious toddler. The mom was exhausted and ended up falling asleep on a bench at the table, and the little boy wandered over to us. He didn’t speak much English but for the next 30 minutes I became his impromptu babysitter. We played a game I like to call hide behind my chair and tickle me. And the old school favourite of let me use your phone and take pictures of random things. He was super cute and while sometimes (often times) I’m not a huge fan of kids running amuck in nice restaurants, his parents looked exhausted so I made an exception. In the end their meal finally came. They had ordered the salt baked whole chicken which takes an hour to prepare. We had thought about ordering it but had opted not to. The kiddo at this point was in a highchair and the dad turned him around in it and slid him over and they handed us half the chicken. It was such a sweet gesture, and even though we were stuffed we ate the chicken, and it was delicious. In the morning the kiddo and I exchanged waves like we were old friends. I love travel interactions like that!

After sadly checking out of the hotel Salt we met our guide and started our tour to the south of the island. We visited Ganga Talao a sacred place for Hindu worshipers. The translation of the name means “Lake of Ganga” which refers to the Ganges river in India. There are several different temples and statues dedicated to the different Hindu gods. The island of Mauritius is very green and tropical and lush. There is an odd mix of vegetation with fir trees mixed in alongside tropical palms. As I mentioned before it was hard to look at the scenery without thinking about Jurassic Park or the mid-2000 TV show Lost. After Ganga Talao we went zip lining. You’re probably wondering how for someone who claims to be scared of heights how it was that I found myself zip lining for the second time this month. Well this was Boobae’s bucket list item and I’m a mostly supportive girlfriend, and I wanted prove to him that I wasn’t chicken. So I did it. And I’m not keen to do it again. We then checked out the scenic viewpoint of the Black River Gorges and stopped off for a fresh seafood lunch. More lobster? Yes please. We then drove to Chamarel to learn about rum production and to visit the Chamarel waterfall and the nearby Seven Coloured Earth. The Seven Coloured Earth is a geological field consisting of seven different coloured sands that separate into different layers based on their volcanic composition. The result is a portion of the landscape that looks like a watercolour painting with the various hues of brown, red, purple and yellow.

At Ganga Talao.
Chamarel waterfall.
Seven Coloured Earth- the hues are more defined after it’s rained.

From here we drove further into the hills to the Chalets Chamarel which I had booked because of the insane view the chalets give of the southern tip of the island below. And the views were even more impressive in person than I had seen online. We sat out on our balcony until the last bits of sunlight had faded and the summit of Le Morne was just a shadow. It was equally picturesque as the sun rose on our last morning in Mauritius.

Le Morne in the background.

So that was kinda lengthy summary of our time in Mauritius, but I’m sure that pictures can make you understand how I left a piece of my heart there….

On another note, it’s been a busy summer. I was home in Canada and the US for almost a month and flew back to Saudi worked a bit and then flew to Abha to attend the AlSoudah Season festival with fellow blogger Laura from Blue Abaya, and then later that week we flew to Mauritius. In about 3 weeks Boobae and I are spending a weekend in Dubai and then I’ll be adventuring solo in Armenia for a week which I’m really pumped about. Happy adventuring to you….

AlSoudah Season

This past weekend I flew to Abha to visit the nearby AlSoudah Season festival. It’s part of the new Saudi initiative called “Saudi Seasons” by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage which aims to put Saudi on the map as a travel destination. The month of July was dedicated to Jeddah Season and August features both AlSoudah and Taif Seasons.

AlSoudah Season takes place in the Asir region of Saudi Arabia which is south of Jeddah sharing a small border with Yemen. The festival is held on AlSoudah mountain which is about a 40 minute drive from Abha, the regions capital. The mountain elevation is around 3000m making this the highest festival ever held in the kingdom.

There are direct flights from Riyadh and Jeddah on either Saudia, FlyNas, Saudi Gulf Air or Flyadeal. Saudia currently is offering a discount code to get 20% off flights- you can use code ABHA19 to take advantage of it. Book tickets soon though as many flights are selling out.

From Abha you could either rent a car or take an Uber or Kareem taxi to AlSoudah. With good traffic it takes around 40 minutes, but allow up to an hour for travel time. The weather in Abha is much cooler than Riyadh and much cooler in AlSoudah because of the elevation, so pack accordingly. If you will be there in the afternoon or evening make sure to bring a coat. Think temperatures in the mid 20’s C but cooling down to the mid teens (15C). The weather also changes very fast. Views are better in the morning before the clouds roll in. Afternoon rain is common and the fog can get very thick. I especially loved the rain and fog as it was such a surprising change from the sweltering heat of Riyadh.

Entrance tickets to the festival are 40sar for the 12years and older crowd, 10sar for kids 4-11 years old, and free for those kiddos under 4. You can buy them online here. It’s important to note that the festival site is quite spread out so wear good walking shoes and bring a stroller for the kids. There are free bikes that you can ride as an alternative to walking.

The festival events includes many adventure activities like bungee jumping, sling shot, zip lining, paintball, and a zip line course. There is also paragliding although I didn’t see it while I was there. I did try the zip line which for someone scared of heights was terrifying, but I’m glad I did it! There are hiking trails for both beginner and advanced hikers. Tickets can be purchased at the above link. You can also buy tickets at the “Hub” center which has food trucks, swings, seating areas and a kids zone. Timings and other information can be found on the AlSoudah Season website here. Please note that not all of the info is in English so you might need an Arabic translator to get the whole scoop!

There are three restaurants if you prefer coffee with a view or a sit down meal. They are Bayat, Serafina (same as the Riyadh restaurant) and Meraki which is a London restaurant. They will be opening a Meraki restaurant in Riyadh in the New Year. I only ate at Meraki which is Greek- I highly recommend it. The food was really good- try the chicken as it is the moistest chicken I’ve ever eaten. Sit outside on the terrace for perfect valley views and watch the zip liners go by.

Misk Art also has an ongoing exhibit at the festival that I would highly recommend seeing. It’s about the history of the Asir region featuring clothing, music and dance. I’m a huge fan of the Misk Art Institute and try to visit their exhibits whenever I can. There is also traditional dancing outside the exhibit in the evenings. And a night time shisha area with music.

There are several accommodation options. I stayed on the festival site so I can’t vouch for the following list but they were recommended as options. Maybe check tripadvisor before booking. In downtown Abha there is Abha Palace and Blue Inn. AlSoudah Tourism Resort is closest to the festival. Mirage Hotel and Bayat Hotel are in neighbouring Khamis Mushait. Bayat Hotel is considered to be the best hotel in the Asir region. Shatha Hotel, KNF Abha Hotel and Abha View Hotel are smaller apartment hotels.

The festival has 17 luxury RVs that can be rented. It’s pretty much like luxury camping with the option of ordering room service. The RVs are managed by the Intercontinental Hotel so it really is 5 star amenities and mine had the softest towels I’ve ever used. It is still an RV though so showering is possible but with limited water. There was an electric fireplace, Nespresso machine, and flat screen TV in mine. You can see the pricing for the RVs here.

The other thing that is taking place in the month of August about 30 minutes from AlSoudah Season is the “Flowerman Festival” which takes place August 12-31. The festival is held in the historical village of Rijal Almaa and highlights the flower headbands men from this region wear. The village is set in a valley about 2300m below AlSoudah- the road to get there is a series of switchbacks so for those of you like me who suffer from motion sickness just be aware. There is also a cable car that takes you down the valley, but I didn’t experience it. It is much hotter on the valley floor so drink lots of water while exploring.

The village of Rijal Almaa was a trade route between Yemen up to Mekkah. It’s currently on the tentative list of upcoming UNESCO sites and consists of about 60 palaces made from stone, clay and wood. I’ve never seen anything like them in all my travels and found it really fascinating. There’s a museum there and you can see examples of the traditional wall painting the area is known for called Qut. It’s made up of mostly primary colours and has a geometric style to it. Laura from Blue Abaya and I spend part of an afternoon exploring the old abandoned parts of the village. Late afternoon is the best time to visit- the village photographs perfectly during the golden hour.

So that’s a little about the Asir region of Saudi Arabia. I didn’t have much of a chance to see Abha so I likely will go back as I’m sure there’s much more of the region to explore. Enjoy the adventure of AlSouhad Season should you go!

Taif, Saudi Arabia

A couple weekends ago I joined a tour with a group of friends to go to Taif in Saudi Arabia. Taif is an easy 1hr direct flight from Riyadh to the southwest. It’s about 90km to Mecca just to put it into geographic context. Taif is located in the mountains of the Mecca province and was previously used as a summer capital for the Royals due to cooler temperatures. It is also famous for its Rose Festival which was the main reason we visited.

The Rose Festival takes place every year from mid March till the end of April. These Damask roses were originally brought to Saudi Arabia by the Ottomans in the 16th century. The climate and fertile soil of this region make it the prefect place to grow roses, but they also produce some of the country’s best honey, grapes, and pomegranate. The roses are hand picked in the early morning as they start to bloom as that’s when they have the most oil. If they are collected too late the oil evaporates and that’s a loss of profit. After they’re collected the rose petals (around 12000-18000 petals) are poured into large copper pots and a super-secret amount of distilled rose water is added and the pot is covered and sealed. Then it’s heated to a temperature specific to each distillery. Kinda like following a recipe. It then drains into large glass containers and the oil collects on top of the water. If a distiller is lucky 18000 petals will produce about 10ml of rose oil (called 1 tawlah.)

The price of the rose oil is based off the weight of 1000 petals and it changes from year to year. Last year it was 60 riyals (16 USD). This year it is 45 riyals (12 USD) as there are more farms which as per economics drives down the price. Taif rose oil has been used in perfumes by Lancome, Givenchy, and Bvlgari to name a few. While in Taif you will have the opportunity to buy a variety of rose products to take home. Rose oil. Rose lotions. Rose water. You get the idea.

Our group tour was not only to visit the roses, but also the see the area. Our tour guide Khalid organized a jam-packed itinerary so we could maximize our time. If you want to visit Taif I would highly recommend booking a tour with him. He was professional and super knowledgeable and I’d book him again. Our tour started on Thursday night and we were greeted at the airport and taken for a late dinner of mezze (mixed salads) and grilled meat before crawling into bed for an early morning start.

Friday morning we had a quick breakfast and headed off towards the Al Hada mountains. The road passes by many amusement parks with what looks like day rental cabins. Taif is a summer tourist destination for Saudi Arabians looking to beat the scorching heat of most of the country. These amusement parks looked kinda apocalyptic as they are dated (think 1980’s) and weren’t open so were empty when we were there. We stopped at a roadside fruit market to sample and buy some of the regions best fruit and then Khalid surprised us with a scenic viewpoint. From that elevation you are able to see the winding Alkurr road below. Just looking at it made me car sick. Besides roses the Taif area is known for …….red-butted baboons. Run for your lives!!! Just kidding, but baboons and monkey’s make me nervous as hell so needless to say there was a lot of screaming while other tourists fed them. On a clear day it is possible to see the clock tower in Mecca in the distance. Sadly, the day was hazy and we couldn’t see it but that would’ve been hella cool.

We then visited the first of two rose distilleries and got to sample the local Taif bread. Taif bread is made from 7 different types of flour. Being domestically challenged I wasn’t aware that there were more flour options than white or brown. Who knew?! It’s quite a dense bread and paired very well with local honey and rose tea. After an informative explanation of the rose distillery process we had the option of being showered with rose petals. Hellloooooo Instagram. When opportunity comes a knocking I happily accept.

From here we visited the regional Al-Shareef museum which has a great display of old historical artifacts such as traditional tea and coffee pots. Clothing and textiles of the region and how meals of the past were prepared and stored. The museum also gives you a feel for what traditional Taif buildings looked like. We then visited Alarfa Fortress which is about 200 years old. On some of the rocks outside of the fort are petroglyphs (rock carvings) of cows, dogs and gazelles. They are said to be 3000 years old. We also visited the nearby camel market and learned some introductory information about camels. The male camels are rather frisky and are kept tied up outside separate from the pens containing the female and baby camels. The males are also separated from each other as they will fight to the death. It was baby camel season so we got to see the babies up close.

Then it was lunch and nap time before heading out for the evening activities. Just before sunset we headed back towards Al Hada to ride the cable car. This ended up being one of the highlights of the weekend trip. The cable car descends into a valley to the tourist village of Al Kar. The ride is about 20min and if you are scared of heights you will probably scream both on the outside and inside as I did. But the views are amazing as is the village at the bottom. Our visit was timed perfectly with the setting sun which added to the magic. There is a water park complete with water slides at the bottom, and the tourist village has great outdoor space with coffee shops and restaurants. The best part was that they had one of those “Alpine-coasters” which are a cross between a roller coaster and a luge minus the snow. Basically you are in separate sleds that are propelled up a hill by a motor and then at the top you are released and you come down the mountain however fast you choose. Both fun and terrifying at the same time! We then took the cable car back up the mountain and headed off to a private camp where we relaxed for the rest of the evening which is a very traditionally Saudi thing to do.

The next morning we headed off early again. This time we headed towards the Al Shafa mountains. We stopped off at another scenic overlook that doubled as baboon feeding ground. Their faces and red bums are equally terrifying, but the view was spectacular. My selfies were on fire. Also if riding things is your thang there were camels and donkeys all colourfully decorated. It was then souvenir shopping time and we visited a different rose distillery. The group let the riyals fly as we bought a wide variety of rose products. We then drove to Taif central market. We explored the honey and gold market and then visited the newly opened artist cooperative where local artist showcase their creative works. Before making a quick dart to the airport we stopped off for lunch for what several people referred to as “the best chicken of my life.” We had Yemeni Mandi chicken which is a style of cooking chicken where it is seasoned with special spices and then cooked in an underground pit. It’s served on a plate of saffron rice and it’s moist and delicious. I would definitely eat Mandi chicken again.

So that wraps up my weekend adventures in Taif. If roses don’t really interest you there’s still a ton to see and it has a very different feel than Riyadh. And if I don’t convey it I would very much recommend having Khalid organize a tour for you!

Get out there and start exploring…..

Solo Female Travel

Ok so lets talk about solo female travel for a bit. I wrote this post back in January while on a solo trip to Istanbul and it’s a bit of a vent about my experience while traveling there as a solo female. If you’ve read my blog before you know I’m a pretty seasoned traveler. I’ve been to 77 countries now and at least 30 of those have been on my own. I’ve lived in Saudi Arabia off and on for over 5 years, and I’m pretty comfortable with being in cultures other than my own.

Anyways, I was in Turkey back in 2011 and the one major memory from that trip was how aggressive the men were. Like following you down the street, bombarding you with questions. Not as aggressive as Morocco was. In Turkey no man ever actually put his hands on me, but they were pretty annoying none the less. You’re probably reading this thinking, hang on, someone in Morocco put their hands on you? Yes. More than once. I couldn’t wait to leave. I figured this time Turkey would be different. I mean I’m 40 for god sakes. Surely past the age limit of trying to be picked up on the street. Boy was I wrong.

Now some women who read this will be saying to themselves- hey I traveled to Turkey and Morocco and had zero issues. And to you lucky ladies I say “good on ya.” Living in Saudi Arabia I’m used to not blending in. I mean blonde hair stands out. Same goes for India, all of Asia and the Middle East. One time in Syria I thought I was kinda fooling people because I kept getting asked if I was Russian which I thought was kinda cool until I learned that was code for “working girl”. The most surprising place I blended in though was Ukraine. People kept asking me if I was a local which I took as a compliment because everyone knows Ukrainian women are hella hot.

Whoah. Totally off track. I wrote this while sipping wine by the fire in Cappadocia watching the sunset so you can see how I could easily become distracted. So I arrived in Istanbul fairly uneventfully. I checked into my hotel and made a brisk walk over to the Hagia Sophia because I’m told it closed at 1700. It was like 1610. I got to the entrance and the gate is shut but there’s this helpful chap leaning against the gate who tells me it will open again in the morning at 9am. I stupidly assume he worked there. He asks where I’m from. I’m like Canada. He’s like where are you going now. And the light bulb flashes on in my head. I’m like oh just over to the Blue Mosque. And he’s all, but let me show you something over here and points across the street. And then he gets more insistent saying just 2min 2min. I’m like no. Thank you and I walk the opposite way.

So off to the Blue Mosque I go. Over the next 15min this scenario will repeat itself a couple more times. Hello. Where you from? What’s your name? How long you stay in Istanbul? Now mind you my body language and very active resting bitch face are giving off I’m quite certain zero signs that I’m wanting to be approached. How about I don’t want to tell you my name. Or what country I’m from. Or how long I’m staying because newsflash I don’t want to be talking to you. It’s all so annoying and ruined what should have been a pleasant afternoon.

So later that night I’m walking to a restaurant that the hotel recommended. And I accidentally miss the street. No biggie, it’s all very close to my hotel. As I’m turning around I walk past this dimly lit area where some men are sitting outside. I keep walking. Suddenly I hear…where in Canada are you from? Now I’m not wearing anything that would identify me as a Canadian. And people always just assume I’m American. So I turn back and it’s the same dude from outside the gate of the Hagia Sophia. And so I say near to Vancouver and turn to walk away and he’s like of I’ve been to so and so. And I’m like cool. And he’s like where are you going. And I’m like for dinner. And he’s like meet me for a drink after. And I’m like I can’t. And he’s like why not. And now I’m getting irritated. Because I just really want to say fuck off guy. (Sorry Pops but swear words get my point across better.) So I say because my boyfriend wouldn’t like it. To which he says well he’s not here is he. And so I just meekily say no and walk briskly away.

And then I get pissed. Because I’m so sick of taking this type of shit. As women we are taught to be polite otherwise you’ll be labeled a bitch. And men put us in this position. Like my body language is telling you I’m not interested. And I’m trying to walk away as you talk. So it’s kinda a no-brainer that I’m not down for this convo. And yet they persist. If I want to talk to you, you’ll know. Like I’d maybe make eye contact. Or look in your general direction. I’m a solo traveler so I pretty much know what I want to see and when I want to see it. I do not require random dude on the street’s opinion. And if I do I’ll ask. Sorry for this long vent but it’s annoying as fuck. And after several incidents like that it just made me want to hide in my hotel as opposed to being followed or chatted up by random dudes.

To be fair it’s not only Middle Eastern countries that this happens in. There was the time a friend and I were followed back to our hotel in Barcelona. Or the time in Cyprus where a Nigerian guy tried to follow us home and we quite literally had to run (like actually run) away from him while yelling at him to try and shame him into not following. I’ve had numerous incidents over the years while traveling where men have blocked my way. Often it’s to try and chat or show me something in their store. Either way it’s not ok. Then there is the grabbing that happens. And this has happened to me both in North America and while traveling. Sometimes it has been my wrist being grabbed onto to try and pull me into a store. Other times it’s more sexual in nature. A hand on my ass. A leg rubbing closer or against mine on a plane or train. Sometimes the acts cause me to take a pause as if to ask myself “that can’t really just have happened.” And yet they did. And because I’m a women they will likely happen again.

And I’m kind of at a loss for how to deal with it. Never travel again? Not an option. No more solo travel. Also not an option. I already take what I think are a number of necessary but saddening precautions. I carry a whistle on my key chain. I travel with a door stopper that I will put under my door in a hotel or hostel if it’s feeling at all dodgy. I have perfected the unwelcoming resting bitch face. If I’m in a crowded place sometimes I will put my headphones in to act as a deterrent to random dudes coming up for a chat. Oddly, this did not work at all in Istanbul and they would still come up. Sometimes I will just hold my phone up and pretend to have a conversation to lessen the chances of having unwanted interactions. I think what’s going to have to happen is that I’m just going to have to be ok with being labeled a bitch. As women we are socialized to be polite even with unwanted attention. And if we aren’t polite and thankful that some random stranger has just tried to chat, or asked us out, or said something sexual to us we are often met with being called the dreaded “B” word.

So that’s the vent. I debated whether to post it but I think it’s important to show that travel isn’t just about getting the right shot for instagram. And in no way do I regret solo travel as a woman nor do I think that women shouldn’t travel on their own because for me it has been hugely empowering. I’m also in no way saying not to travel to Morocco or Turkey. Those were just my experiences as a western looking woman. I just wanted to bring to light issues that female travelers face.

Safest of travels…..


My Top 10 of 2018

Well it’s that time of the year again. The end of the old year and the beginning of the new one. I love looking back at where I was and forward to where I want to go. 2018 was jam packed full of travel. In fact I was out of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for a total of 103 days. I did A LOT of solo travel. I visited 19 countries this year, with 11 of those being new to me, and 12 of them solo. I traveled quite a bit to Europe and saw the remaining Eastern European countries I’d yet visited, and spend a bit of time in my native country of Canada.

2018 seemed really busy to me and my blogging kinda fell to the wayside. I’ve got a great group of friends and my social calendar was pretty full. Then at the end of the summer I met a boy…..and that’s consumed even more of my time, but in a good way. But enough about that. Lets talk about the top places I traveled….

1. Luxor, Egypt

In January I flew to Luxor Egypt via Cairo, with 3 girlfriends for a quick weekend away, to check off a bucket list item for me. I’m not really a “bucket list” person, but hot air ballooning over the Valley of the Kings was definitely on it. We took a sunset sail down the Nile, visited the temples of Karnak, Luxor, Hatshepsut, and Medinet Habu. We walked the Valley of the Kings. Our local guide convinced a rickshaw driver to let me drive his rickshaw. That’s always a highlight for me (and a reoccurring theme of this years travels.)

Luxor was amazing. It felt completely surreal to wander amongst so much history. The temple of Luxor was even more stunning and eerie at night and I’d highly recommend it. The best part of that weekend though was the hot air ballooning. We were under prepared for how cold Egypt was in the early morning hours in January so the four of us “borrowed” our white hotel robes to keep warm. Many thanks to the Hilton for keeping us warm. We must’ve looked like a confusing sight to the locals, but a few of them gave us thumbs up so they obviously appreciated our ingenuity. Anyways, if you go to Luxor make sure to go hot air ballooning. It is magical as the sun is coming up. You have views over the Nile River to one side and the temples of the Valley of the Kings to the other. It was peaceful and awe inspiring and amazing.

2. Djibouti

In February my Kiwi sidekick and I set out on operation “Shake our Booty in Djibouti.” If you follow my blog at all then you know the trip was a complete success. Djibouti is a country that is off the beaten path, and yet up and coming. For such a small country there is a surprising number of things to see and adventures to have. This was the scene of the 2018 tire mishap, where Kiwi and I ended up in a vehicle which suddenly had only 3 tires on it on an old air tarmac quite literally in the middle of no where. We spend a night camping in the desert and dancing with the locals. At some point I was handed an old wild west style wooden hunting rifle and instructed to dance with said rifle. And dance I did. Harder and faster than ever before, and that was pretty close to being the best travel memory of the year. I also was fortunate enough to drive a rickshaw on Africa’s busiest highway. I loved every minute of it, no body died, and the rickshaw wallah even asked me to join him in a joint business venture. Sadly, I had to decline.

This trip was also a great reminder in the fact that you can make plans and then life just happens. Our flight from Djibouti to Dubai was canceled and we had to scramble to change our plans, which basically meant a bunch of frustrating emails with FlyDubai over their lack of assistance, and us checking back into the hotel we had just checked out of for a pool day. To be fair the hotel was full of military contractors so there was a ton of eye candy at the pool so it felt like a reward in a lot of ways. But it did mean we had to shorten our time in Dubai to only one night. Thankfully though, the Westin took pity on us and upgraded us to our own suite with a massive private balcony. So great!!

3. Farasan Islands, Saudi Arabia

In March I took a weekend trip to the coast of Saudi Arabia. Down near to the border of Yemen about a 90min ferry ride from the port city of Jizan is these chain of islands. To stay they are stunning is a huge understatement. The water is that shade of blue that typically makes you think of the Caribbean. The sandy beaches are secluded and largely devoid of other tourists. It is a snorkeler or diver’s paradise. We spend the weekend on an all day boat tour exploring the beaches and swimming or snorkeling while dining on fresh fish. On the way back our boat broke down and it took some time to get the engine restarted and then we had to battle huge waves that kept splashing over the side of the boat. It was all very exciting and very, very cold as the sun set.

The next day we explored the main island and visited the town of Fursan to see some old merchant houses that have ornate stonework. We visited an old Ottoman Fort from the 18th century and a restored historical village. And we took soooo many pictures. The entire weekend was just perfect, and I had to keep reminding myself that we were still in Saudi Arabia. That these amazingly colourful views were in fact Saudi. Because, lets be honest, these are not the views you would ever associate with this country! If you live in Saudi make sure to visit the Farasan Islands.

4. Kosovo

In April I did a three week solo trip to Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, and Greece. To be quite honest, I had a really great time in each country, and I found Belgrade, Serbia to be a wonderful place to pass a few days. The city itself is very walkable and full of large urban art installations (graffiti) of which I’m a huge fan. Skopje, Macedonia was a whimsical place which has a dizzying assortment of statues. Most of them weird and confusing, but made it interesting to wander the streets because you didn’t know what odd statue was just around the bend. Statue to breastfeeding women. Check. Statue of a fish. Check. So many horse statues. The countryside of Albania was green and beautiful. One of my favourite sunsets of 2018 was captured in a square in Tirana. But lets talk more about Kosovo…

Kosovo is still pretty off the beaten path. The history in this entire region is complicated to say the least. Kosovo is the youngest country in Europe having declared independence in 2010- some countries recognize it and some countries don’t. There are 4 Christian Orthodox churches/monasteries in Kosovo that are on the UNESCO list. I hired a local guide for a day and we drove the Kosovo countryside while discussing the history of the region and taking in the scenery. The countryside reminded me a lot of driving in parts of Canada, as it was green with snow capped mountains. My favourite part of this trip though was the sweet man I met on the bus from Belgrade to Pristina who went by the name of “Galle.” He read his newspaper to me, and we shared snacks and he told me stories of his time as a pilot in the Yugoslav Army. Random unexpected meetings with kind strangers is one of my favourite things about traveling. When you start off as people from different backgrounds and countries but part as friends.

5. Santorini, Greece

The tail end of my trip to Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania ended with a few days in Athens and then 4 nights on what I coined my “Solomoon.” This basically consisted of me booking myself into a beautiful villa with a private hot tub and drinking absurd amounts of wine. I figured that since I was 39 and yet to have a Honeymoon it was time to take myself on one. I don’t meant this to sound bitter, because I wasn’t bitter while I was there. And it’s not meant to sound pathetic either. It was mostly meant to be empowering from the mindset that I wasn’t going to not treat myself to experiences in romantic places just because I’m not in a relationship. And so I didn’t. I treated myself to fancy dinners, watched the sunset from my hot tub, wandered the island aimlessly, and ate a ton of orange gelato. I read books and took naps and tried to make some big life decisions. It was lovely. I think every single lady should take themselves on a “Solomoon.” That sounded a bit sexist, but I think for those of us older and single it’s really important. And really life is too short, so just take that damn trip to a romantic hot spot.

6. Ukraine

In August I spend some time on a solo trip through Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova. Ukraine was a pretty significant trip for me. For once I’d done some research before going- specifically about the 2014 revolution. If Ukraine is on your travel list I would highly recommend watching the Netflix documentary called “Winter on Fire.” It is intense and I found it really emotional to walk around the city center with scenes from the documentary playing in the back of my head. Many of the protesters killed were young students and there are several memorials throughout the city center.

One of my most random travel memories happened in Kiev when I showed up planning to do a free walking tour of the city, but the guide never turned up. The other travelers that were also at the meeting point banded together and we formed an impromptu tour of our own. We were an international expat conglomerate from Kazakhstan, Australia, Slovenia, the UK, Portugal, the Philippines and Sri Lanka- some living in their home countries and the some residing in India, Germany, Qatar and me in Saudi Arabia. We jumped on the metro and visited some of the major tourist sites, snapping group photos and chatting about our shared love of travel. It was a really memorable afternoon, and one I won’t soon forget.

The other great thing I did in Ukraine was visit the site of Chernobyl. As much as I hate the word it was a “bucket list” item for me. I’ve long been a lover of eerie abandoned places and I really wanted to photograph the area. I joined onto a day tour and was able to explore the safe areas and take photos to my hearts desire.

7. Moldova

One word really sums up why Moldova is on my top 10 of 2018 list….Wine. Such amazing wine. Moldova is a trip for wine lovers like me. Many families still produce their own small batch wines from old family recipes to store for personal use. I spent 2 nights in the capital of Chisinau and did a wine tour of Cricova winery which is listed as the countries best. Underneath the town is 120km of underground wine cellars which you can tour by trolley. Word to the wise- if you book a tasting tour this isn’t like tiny sips of tasting that we in North America are used to. It is like full glass of wine, make sure the bottle is empty kinda tastings. You can easily see how this made my list.

8. Portugal

I’d been to Portugal once back in 2010 on my first ever solo trip. That seems a lifetime ago and I can still remember how scared I was getting off the plane in Lisbon on my own and so uncertain that solo travel was for me. Flash forward to October of this year when I flew to Porto to meet my Pops for Camino Part Two. We spent a week walking from Portugal and then onwards to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Walking the Camino Portuguese was much easier than when we walked the Camino Frances in the fall of 2016. Albeit the walk from Porto was far shorter (we ended up walking only 280km as opposed to 680km) but it was less populated and so very scenic. We ended up seeing very few pilgrims those first few days. We chatted and bonded and by some miracle my feet were in much better shape than the whole blister fiasco of the Camino Frances. But it was still challenging. We were 2 years older and a little wiser which meant our packs were lighter than our first walk, but everything mostly hurt all the time.

We had a full day in Porto prior to staring our Camino so we explored. Porto is a fantastic city, with stunning views. We visited the Cathedral and picked up our pilgrim passports and then booked a young guy who gave tours in an auto rickshaw at sunset. He took us to a scenic overlook with another spectacular sunset and then I asked him if I could drive. And Pops found himself in his first ever rickshaw being driven in Portugal by his daughter!!

9. Belgium

In December I had sometime off and I was dying to visit some European Christmas markets so I flew to Luxembourg, Belgium and then to Berlin Germany to visit my cousin. Luxembourg was cooler than I thought and definitely warrants a few days exploring, and I loved the Christmas markets there. Cheese fondue for 6euros. Need I say more.

I spent 2 night in Bruges which is quaint and adorable as the entire Old Town is on the UNESCO list. It offers great examples of medieval architecture. But the Belgium city of Ghent really stole my heart. It was gritty and urban and reminded me a lot of my second home, Seattle. I loved photographing that city and wandered aimlessly for hours. The December skies added an extra layer to the already photogenic city. I stayed in a building that used to be the Post Office before it was turned into a hotel- my room overlooked the ferris wheel and Christmas market below. From Belgium I flew to Berlin to spend a few days with my cousin and her partner. Operation European Christmas Markets was a total success.

10. Italy

The last trip of the year was probably my most favourite. Right after Christmas I flew to Milan with my new boo to celebrate my 40th birthday. Holy hell how am I 40??! Anyways the thought of celebrating in the desert felt less than ideal so off to Milan we went. Now I’m a seasoned solo traveler and I’ve been single for like 100 years, but traveling with a partner was pretty unfamiliar to me. Boo carried my bag in the airport. Like all I had to do was carry my purse and try and keep up. Mind blown. Not sure how I’ll ever go back to carrying my own stuff again.

Anyways enough about that and onto Milan. We spent 4 nights exploring the city which was a really good amount of time. I had read reviews of people saying to skip Milan or only spend a day there, but we found plenty to do and walked a ton. We went to a 2 star Michelin restaurant and sat at the chef’s table in the kitchen which was really cool, and way less dramatic than Hell’s Kitchen looks on TV. We visited the Milan Cathedral and saw The Last Supper (otherwise coined by yours truly the dinner table Jesus thing when I couldn’t remember what it was called.) We drank lots and lots of wine and did a pub crawl of local bars. But the best part was that we got to spend time together outside of Saudi as a normal couple which was really, really nice.

So that’s my top 10 from 2018. I’ve already got some upcoming travel plans for 2019. I’m off to Istanbul next week with a couple nights in Cappadocia. I’ve already visited both, but not since 2011, and I’ve long wanted to hot air balloon over the area when there’s snow. Fingers crossed there’s snow next weekend. In February I might do a short weekend away to Jordan or Cairo and in March I’m doing a girls boozy brunch weekend in Dubai. Then Tunisia and any of the Stans (minus Afghanistan) are high on my travel list. Bali is always calling me back so maybe a yoga retreat will be on the horizon again. And I’m sure I’ll be back in Europe by the spring- I just can’t seem to stay away and there are like 5 or 6 countries left that I haven’t yet visited.

Otherwise I’ll be in North America in July most likely and that’s all I’ve got planned. I’m going to try and get caught up on my writing in Turkey next week and post in more detail about some of last years trips. From me to you- may your 2019 be full of joy and some epic adventures along the way. Happiest of travels…..


Updates

First off…. I’m the worst. I’ve been getting emails from many of my readers asking where I’ve been since I haven’t blogged in several months. I’m still here- I’ve just been really, really busy. Life kinda got away from me, but fingers crossed in the New Year I’ll get some better balance. So what have I been so busy with you’re probably wondering?! Well let me tell you….

I’ve been traveling- like kinda a lot. I’m in the midst of writing my Top 10 from 2018 review so I’ll tell you in more detail then, but earlier this month I visited my 75th and 76th countries. Not that it’s a competition (because it’s not) but the OCD part of my brain likes to keep track of these things, hence the counting. I spent a lot of this year in Eastern Europe to some less traveled places like Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, Greece, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova. I spent three weeks in October walking the Camino Portuguese from Porto, Portugal to Santiago de Compostella in Spain with my Pops. It was a shorter tribute to our walk on the Camino Frances two years ago. It was an easier, less social walk but with stunning scenery. I’ve been doing a lot of solo traveling as of late, which I am a huge fan. I’ve got one more trip coming up next week to end the year. I’m going to Milan, Italy with my new beau for my 40th. Yes I said new beau. And yes I’m turning 40. Ugh. Sayonara to my 30’s. I hope my 40’s are full of just as many adventures!!

Back in June women in Saudi Arabia were allowed to drive. Naturally, I was late to the party (mostly because of the massive backlog related to driver’s license appointments) but better late than never I got my license this fall. Have I driven yet? Sadly no. But I’m dying to plan an all girls road trip sometime soon.

I’ve had a pretty busy social life as of late (truth be told my social life has always been pretty full). For years Pops has been offering me unwanted advice on how to get more rest with no success. Fall and winter in Saudi is when the weather is perfect and there’s quite a lot of formal embassy things going on. I’ve been to a few art exhibits. Yes. Saudi has an art scene. Who knew?! It’s pretty cool and I’m keen to go to more things. And I’ve been checking out some new restaurants and food trucks which are really popular in Riyadh right now!

I’ve also been working on a kinda big writing thing that I’ll tell you about when it actually publishes. Basically, I was approached by a HUGE travel website to write a paid thing for them and at first I totally thought it was a Nigerian prince scam, but it turns out it wasn’t which was really cool. Details to come about that….

For my Saudi peeps- Janadriyah Festival is starting this week. Normally it’s in February, but this year it’s running from December 20th to January 9th. December 20-24th are male only days and then the festival will be open to ladies and families. It’s one of my most favourite things to do here and I look forward to it every year. I read online that it will be open from 11am to 11pm, but previous years I’d tried to go in the early afternoon during the week and it wasn’t open, so I’d say go late afternoon. Parking is always a hot mess, so take that into consideration. Personally, I think it’s much easier to have a driver or taxi/uber drop you off.

So that’s it really. I’m still alive. I’m still in Saudi Arabia. I’m planning to stay another year. One day I hope to get caught up on telling you about my travels. In the mean time it seems I’m much better at posting to my Facebook page or Instagram so you can follow along there if you like. Happy travels, and a very merry holiday season!!



Kosovo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

From here I took the bus to Macedonia…..

Belgrade Serbia

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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