The musings of a wanderer......

Category: Romania

My Top 10 from 2016

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

1. Romania

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

Peles Castle

Bram Castle














2. Italy

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













3. The United Arab Emirates

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













4. The Czech Republic

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













5. Poland

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













6. Jordan

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













7. Spain

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













8. Paris France

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













9. Amsterdam Netherlands

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













10. Iceland

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













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

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


Day Trips from Bucharest Romania

During my week long stay in Bucharest Romania I took two day trips from the city. Tours can be easily made from any hotel, and there are a lot of options to see the surrounding Romanian countryside. The day tours were booked with 2 different tour companies, both of which were excellent.

The first tour I did was a 12 hour tour to Peles Castle and then into Transylvania to visit Dracula’s Castle (otherwise known as Bran Castle.) Peles Castle is located north of Bucharest about 90 min away in the Carpathian Mountains outside of the town of Sinaia. It was built by King Carol I whom I spoke of in my last post. He was the King under whom Romania gained its independence and who was much loved by the people. King Carol visited this mountain area, and is said to have fallen in love with the area as it reminded him of his native country of Germany. In 1873 construction of the castle was started. The castle was built in the Neo-Renaissance style and stands boldly against the nearby mountains. It’s an interesting mix of Gothic meets German architecture. The rooftop and towers were black and striking against the blue sky while the outside body of the palace resembled buildings I’ve seen in Bavaria. It’s quite a marvel to see.






The outside garden area opens with a large fountain and has a lovely walkway that winds past the many sculptures that adorn the garden. I would imagine in the spring and summer it would be especially stunning. As it was still the end of winter when I visited nothing was in bloom yet, but the added bonus of visiting during the off season is that there were very few other visitors. The inside of the palace was immaculate. To visit the inside of the palace you must take a guided tour which was super interesting and told of the history of King Carol I and how the palace was designed. I took a ton of photos because each room had its own theme, and everything in the room was perfectly matched and ornate. There was a stunning spiral staircase, spectacular stained glass windows and intricately woven rugs. The armory had  an impressive display of weaponry and coats of arms. We toured the library, the music room and several of the themed rooms including the French Room, the Turkish Room and a room that had Moorish design. If you’re in Romania be sure to visit this Peles Castle!












From Peles Castle we drove another hour to Bran Castle located on the border of Transylvania and Wallachia. This castle couldn’t be more different than Peles Castle. It’s much smaller in size, and much less ornate given it served as a fortress because of its position up on a cliff.  It was used in the 1400’s to defend against the Ottomans. The castle is known as Dracula’s Castle even though in actual fact it has nothing to do with Dracula. It got this name because it’s the only castle in Transylvania that matches Bram Stoker’s description of Dracula’s castle, even though he never actually visited Romania. Our day trip to Peles Castle and Bran Castle ended with a visit to the super cute town of Brasov.













Our second day trip from Bucharest was into neighbouring Bulgaria. The border town of Ruse is about an hour from Bucharest just across the Danube River. It’s good to note that Bulgaria is part of the EU so if you don’t need a visa to get into the EU you won’t have any problems crossing the border. Neither Romania or Bulgaria is off the Euro though so you’ll need to change money at the border. There was a Chinese girl who was on the tour with us who didn’t require a visa for Bulgaria, but because her Romania visa was only a single entry she wouldn’t have been able to get back into Romania had she entered Bulgaria. This would’ve been good information for her to have known before joining the tour and getting stuck at the border until someone from the tour agency could come back and get her!

Crossing into Bulgaria was quite literally like crossing into another country. The border town of Ruse looked a lot poorer than the countryside of Romania. The buildings and cars were more run down. The language changed. Romanian is a Latin romance language whereas Bulgarian is a Slavic language with a Cyrillic alphabet making reading road signs difficult. Our first stop was to visit St Dimitrius Basarbovski Rock Monastery which is about 10km from the town of Ruse. The monastery was first mentioned in the 1400’s and is essentially 2 cave like rooms build into the rock of a cliff. The stairs are a little uneven on the climb up so wear good walking shoes. There are some beautiful Orthodox paintings on the front of one of the buildings, and inside there is an alter with candles and offerings of coins of photos brought by visitors.

From the monastery we drove about 90 min to the town of Veliko Tarnovo which is located on the Yantra River. The old town sits up on a hill overlooking the river with the ruins of Tsarevets Fortress visible on the adjacent hill. The fortress was constructed in the 12th century and served as a stronghold until it was overtaken by the Ottomans in 1393 when it was subsequently burnt down. The site was then restored in the 1900’s. It’s a steep hike across the draw bridge up the hill to the reconstructed church called the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God. Try saying that 10 times fast! There are stunning views of the surrounding area from the church. The inside of the church is magnificent. The frescoes on the walls and ceilings are painted in a modernist style I’ve never seen in a church before. They were dark and captivating to look at. Very much worth the walk to the top of the fortress area.













One of the most interesting things I learned on this day trip to Bulgaria was about the death and dying practices there. While driving thru towns and villages it is very common to see sheets of paper with black and white photos of people affixed to doors and gates. Our tour guide told us it was to notify people of the deceased. This practice is very specific to Bulgaria, as we didn’t see this in Romania at all. I’ve since done some research and these notices are called Necrologs. The first notice is issued immediately after a persons death to announce the person’s death and provide information regarding the funeral. Subsequent necrologs are often posted to the dead person to say how the family is suffering and to update the dead person as to events that have happened since they passed. Often the pictures on the necrolog are from the deceased persons ID or passport. Often the necrologs are signed at the end by the author. It was not uncommon to pass a house that had multiple necrologs fixed to the main gate. Personally, I find practices like this fascinating.


That wraps up my time in Romania. There is still much of the country I didn’t get to see but would’ve loved to. Alas, next time. Bulgaria was very different and being the first Slavic country I’ve been to it’s made me want to explore more. I’ve just recently returned from a trip to the Czech Republic and am planning a trip to Croatia and Slovenia in June so I’ll be seeing much more very soon.

Have you been to Romania or Bulgaria? What did you think??

Bucharest Romania

Back in February I spent a week in Romania to ring in my kiwi sidekicks birthday. This trip came about from a little game I like to play called “where can we fly for the cheapest price.” Ding ding- we have a winner. Bucharest Romania it is. I knew next to nothing about Romania, apart from its Communist history, gypsies and Dracula. Thankfully, after spending a week there I’m here to rave to you about how awesome Bucharest is and what you should see when you go there. Bucharest was a really cool city to explore. Its got a very urban feel to it, most people spoke English, and the local people were extremely friendly. Most of our time was spent exploring the city, visiting the many wine bars, and eating good food. We took 2 different day trips outside of the city which I will tell you about in a later post.

So before you pack your bags for Bucharest Romania here are a few things you should know before you go. Romania has a pretty sorted past. Parts of the country and then eventually all of the country were under Turkish rule thru the 16th to 18th centuries. In 1866 a German prince was smuggled into the country via Switzerland arriving in Romania via boat as there was no train at that time. He would go on to become King Carol the first King of Romania. He was crucial in the modernization and development of Romania. In 1877 Romania gained its independence from Turkey. After World War 1 Romania was able to again acquire Transylvania as it had been lost to Hungary. In the Second World War Romania was aligned with Germany, but Romania ended up losing much of the territory it had acquired after the First World War. Later in the war Romania would end up changing sides and fought against Germany and Transylvania was reacquired. In 1965 Nicolae Ceausescu took over power and this is where Romania’s communist history kicks in. The country entered a period of repression until he was overthrown and then shot in 1989. Romania is a member of the EU, and today is moving past it’s communist history.

So what is there to see you ask?? Bucharest is an architectural marvel. There is an interesting mix of French Art Nouveau buildings juxtapositioned against the newer drab Communist era buildings. In 1977 Romania had a massive earthquake that resulted in extensive damage especially to the older multi-leveled buildings in Bucharest. The facades of the older buildings are beautiful and adorned with statues. Some of the buildings have been maintained, and others have fallen into a state of disrepair. We found a really cool tour group in Bucharest called Interesting Times. They offer a bunch of unique tours- some were food tours, or photo tours, but the one I was really psyched about was called “Beautiful Decay.” We had a guide take us to some of the abandoned places in the city. We ended up visiting a house that was in the process of being restored by the Institute of Archaeology and an old abandoned factory site. This was a real highlight of the trip for me- I love walking the streets of a city while learning about its history. It was also a great way to take in Bucharest’s urban art scene. It’s a mecca for graffiti art which adds surprising bursts of colour throughout the city.













While walking in the Old City you will end up stumbling across many of the Hidden Churches for which Bucharest is known for. There are Orthodox churches scattered throughout the city- some down alleys, in small squares and one hidden behind a Pizza Hut. They were very cool to explore as many are still very colourfully painted. I had the fortune to stumble into the Stavropoleos Monastery at sunset and witnessed a group of nuns reading from an old Bible and singing hymns. It was a serenely private experience.







A trip to Bucharest isn’t complete without a visit to The Palace of the Parliament. It is reportedly the 2nd largest government building in the world after the Pentagon in Washington DC. It was completed in 1994 and took 10 years to build. Many of the rooms are today not in use but there are over 1000 rooms. There were 700 architects who worked on the building with a team of 20000 workers. It’s estimated that some 3000 workers died during the building phase. You can tour a very small section of the building as part of a guided tour. Tours are offered in several languages, and you must have your passport present to visit. As it is still a functioning government building you must go through airport style security prior to your tour. If you arrive early you can sip a crisp beer from the concession stand in the lobby. The building is elegant, with marble from floor to ceiling, but has a kindof sterile feel to it. The rooms depict a period past- resembling palaces from a century or two earlier and not something that was build only 20 years ago. Still though, it’s worth a visit.











We spent part of the day visiting Therme a huge wellness complex with several heated pools about 10km outside of Bucharest. It’s a relatively new venture, and so there are some kinks that need to be ironed out, but it’s a great way to unwind. Especially when the weather is cold. There are different packages depending on what you want to do, and there is a kids area with a wave pool and water slides. We booked the package that also allowed us to use the different temperature saunas upstairs. Downstairs there’s an indoor and outdoor thermal pool, with 3 aromatherapy pools, and poolside bars and a restaurant. You can rent towels or robes there, so no need to pack your own. Therme is a great way to unwind after a couple busy days of traveling.

That pretty much wraps up our time in Romania. We did do 2 long day trips during the week that we were there. One through the Romanian countryside, and one to neighbouring Bulgaria. I’ll tell you about both of them next time!!

Have you been to Bucharest Romania? What were the highlights for you?

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