Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Category: Egypt

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 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…..


Luxor Egypt

Luxor Egypt has been on my travel list forever. Like seriously years. I’ve dreamed of going hot air ballooning over the Valley of the Kings. Now I’m sure you know that I love to travel. But I don’t do great in the heat, so I knew I needed to go to Luxor before it got too hot. I invited a few girlfriends to go and at the beginning of February we flew via Cairo to Luxor. We had a 4am flight so we arrived to Luxor tired and in need of a nap. That first day would be the only down time we would have and we booked ourselves in for massages and relaxed next to the pool.

I have been to Egypt before. Once to Cairo for a day and then for a long weekend in Sharm el Sheikh. I remember Cairo being overwhelming. While seeing the pyramids at Giza and the Sphynx were really cool, I remember never having a moment to ourselves. In my memory I recall it being similar to India where it felt like someone was trying to sell you something literally every second of every day. Luxor, by comparison was more chill. I had prepped myself and the three other girls I was traveling with for this type of choatic atmosphere. We were pleasantly surprised. That’s not to say that we were approached to buy things, because we were, but far less often that I had anticipated. Within the first 30 min of the first temple we visited we knew that when a random dude says “Hey lady look at this” you didn’t follow him or else you’d be pressured to giving said old man money for showing you whatever random thing it was that he desired to point out. Luxor felt safe. Well as safe as Egypt can feel. There is a large Coptic Christian population in the city, and they live side by side with the Muslim majority. There is a notable security presence.

I had booked a guide for us thru Aladin tours who sent us a lovely local woman named Azza who would be our guide for the next two days. As a tour group of four women I especially like that a woman would be the one guiding us around! Our first stop was to visit Karnak temple. This temple is one of the largest religious structures ever built and it was constructed over some 2000 years from 2055BC to 100AD. The entrance into the site is lined with all these statues of lion bodies with ram heads known as Criosphinx symbolizing a shield. Hypostyle hall is filled with engraved columns which make for really cool pictures. The complex is full of obelisks, small temples, chapels and courts, as well hieroglyphs. We spend easily an hour there wandering the site and taking photos. Later we visited the Luxor museum which is well worth the trip and houses a collections of well preserved statues, mummies, and different artifacts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Later that day we visited Luxor Temple. Our trip coincided with an Egyptian school holiday, so the vast majority of other tourists were actually Egyptians. There were several school trips happening and the teenage girls were very excited to practice their English with us and take photos. I’m not a fan of being asked to have my picture taken with people, but I will make an exception for girls. Especially teenage girls! We had a full on paparazzi photo shoot at the ticket booth. Luxor temple was built between 1100-1600BC. The outer walls of the temple loom high overhead guarded by enormous statues on either side of the entrance with a massive obelisk. Originally there were two but the other one stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Outside of the main entrance was an avenue of sphinx which used to connect Luxor and Karnak temples. On the left hand side as you walk in is an active mosque built overlooking one of the courtyards. It’s pretty surreal to be there when the call to prayer is called out. There are some very well preserved hieroglyphs and sets of columns similar to Karnak although I thought Karnak pillars were more interesting. There were also some carvings of Egyptian men with large genitalia which naturally I needed to take pictures of, but I won’t share them here as not all my readers may appreciate this. I will say that from an anatomy standpoint certain body parts may have been chiselled  inaccurately in comparison to the rest of the body if you get my drift. The other really cool thing I liked was in the outer courtyard of this temple is a partially hidden statue of the goddess Isis. She is headless and dressed in Greek clothing. We were all very taken with her. On our last night we made a point of going back to Luxor temple after dark. The temple is lit up and it casts a magical feel to the whole area. As if Egypt doesn’t already feel magical enough I was completely entranced with the temple after dark. Karnak Temple also is open in the evenings, but from what I understand it is more of a touristy light-show type thing which isn’t really my cup of tea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We ended that first day of touring Luxor with a sunset cruise along the Nile River in a traditional wooden felucca. It was so relaxing. We just sipped tea with the wind blowing thru our hair taking pictures as the sun dipped below the horizon. All four of us expressed gratitude of this shared experience. Egypt is a place that people read about in history books and see art exhibits from in countries around the world. But to walk be able to on Egypt’s soil and float along the waters is an entirely surreal and heart-filling experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 2 of our Luxor exploration involved us getting up before sunrise to board a minivan that took us to a boat, that was supposed to take us across the Nile River to another minivan that would take us to a hot air balloon. That was the plan. Hot air ballooning is very weather dependent. If it’s too windy or not windy enough or the skies aren’t clear then you don’t go. This was how we found ourselves freezing our unprepared butts off while sipping tea on a docked boat waiting to see if the visibility would clear. The Gods weren’t in our favour that day, so as the sun was coming up we were back in a van being driven across the Nile to the West bank. You’ve probably heard of the East Bank and West Bank and unless you are really really into Egyptology you might not really know what the difference is. Well thank goodness you’re reading this blog post then so I can give you what little research/knowledge I have on the topic! Basically the East bank of the Nile River was where the people lived and worshipped. This is where the temples are. The West bank by contrast was where the dead are buried. This is where the tombs are. There are temples on the West Bank of course but they were for the purpose of being mortuary temples.

So we drove to the West Bank and our first stop was Hatshepsut Temple. This temple is really remarkable as it’s quite large and built at the base of a rock cliff. There’s a large and imposing ramp that connects the ground floor to the first floor and another ramp that connects up to the second floor and the entire front of the temple is garnished with columns (some with the remnants of statues). Hatshepsut was a pharaoh who was born in 1507 BC and died at the age of 50. It’s believed that she reined for 21 years and that she was the longest ruling woman from that time. She has been credited with building hundreds of construction projects during her lifetime- this temple though was the most significant. Interestingly her body was not officially confirmed until 2007- it had previously been mislabeled as the mummy of her wet nurse. We spent about an hour exploring the temple- there was some very well preserved carvings and the cliffs towering to the back of the temple gave it a cool perspective. There was also a chapel dedicated to the goddess Hathor with a few remaining Hathor headed columns. She was referred to as the “Mistress of Heaven.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Hatshepsut Temple we stopped off at a small artisan family’s shop to see how alabaster vases and figurines were made. We then drove to the VALLEY OF THE KINGS. Sorry for yelling but I was pretty damn excited about it. It’s a place I have long read about and seen in movies so it was amazing to actually step foot there. To date there are 63 known tombs. The last ones were discovered as recently as 2008 and new tombs are being discovered all the time in the hills in the surrounding area. Some of the tombs are just single rooms where as others are enormous with multiple chambers- the largest totaling 120 rooms. The Pharaohs and nobles and their servants and priests were buried here over a 500 year period from the 16-11th century BC. When you enter the site you can buy varying tickets to several different tombs. Ours included three and on the advice of our guide we did not purchase the additional photography ticket of like $15 U.S. Now in hindsight I so wish I’d bought it because the tombs that we saw were very well preserved and wouldv’e taken great photos. Obviously people don’t buy the photography ticket and still try to take pictures, but there are employees watching for this type of thing and we saw one lady being escorted out with her phone being confiscated. Personally I’d just pay the $15 instead of trying to be sneaky.

From here we visited Habu Temple the mortuary temple dedicated to Ramesses III. For some strange reason this temple reminded me of Vegas. If you’ve ever visited Luxor hotel in Vegas than you will understand. The outer temple walls of Hubu temple were so imposing and well preserved that my immediate thoughts were that it had to be fake. Like it was so cool there was no way that it could be real if that makes any sense at all. The outer hieroglyphs were so well preserved my brain and eyes didn’t know what to make of it. After I realized that I was in fact in Egypt and not in Las Vegas we walked into the temple which equally blew my mind. I took some video where I’m standing in the middle getting a 360 degree view of the temple and it was amazing. The columns were intricate and parts of the archway had remnants of bright colours. Blue and reds were the most visible but you could easily imagine how concentrated those colours must have been in it’s originality. One of the inner courtyards had a row of statues supposedly in dedications to Rameses. Funfact: there is a portion of engraving on part of the temple wall that represents people (men) getting their heads cut off and then below it men getting their penises chopped off and a bunch of these body parts laying on top of each other. This made a great backdrop for selfies. FYI.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On our way back to the East Bank we stopped off at Colossi of Memnon which consists of two statues from 1350 BC. The statues are of Pharaoh Amenhotep III and are in varying states of decay but quite cool to see nonetheless. If you’ve followed my blog for a while then you know that I have a love of three wheeled auto rickshaws. Like I will literally go out of my way to drive one if they are within a 50km radius. Lucky for me on the outskirts of Luxor city there are rickshaws, and after lunch our guide Azza was able to arrange for me to drive one around the neighbourhood. Naturally, it was a bit of a spectacle and I stalled it a few times until my suppressed rickshaw skills took over and I drove like a pro. Well a pro who once drove one 3000km across India!

Early the next morning we woke up early for hot air ballooning attempt number 2. This time proved successful. It should be noted that Egypt in December and January isn’t hot. It’s actually quite cold in the early morning and evening and we were less than prepared. So after freezing the previous morning on hot air ballooning attempt number 1 we were much better prepared. We “borrowed” our hotel robes and wore them to keep warm. We are nothing if not resourceful and plus we looked hella cool. We got compliments on our geniusness from the locals and looks of confusion from the Asian tourists who were also hot air ballooning. Anyways, enough about our wardrobes and more about the hot air ballooning. We arrived to the launch site (I’m not sure it’s called that but it sounds extra cool so let’s just call it that.) The sun was just starting to come up and you could hear the intermittent “whoosh” as the balloons were filled with hot air. All around us colourful balloons started to take shape and rise. We eagerly watched with equal parts fear and excitement. There ended up being about 18 of us in our balloon split between 4 compartments. We ended up flying near to the Valley of the Kings and then over some excavations sites and then a village and some farmlands before facing the River Nile as the sun poked up over the horizon. The colours as the sky changed were mesmerizing and we took a ton of pictures. This is something else I would highly, highly recommend doing if weather and time permit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I know Egypt hasn’t had the best rep for tourists in recent years and it’s really struggling economically, but I still wouldn’t let that deter you from going. Our weekend was a very reasonable. There are not direct flights from Riyadh but Flynas operates flights a few times a week direct from Jeddah, or you can fly via Cairo on EgyptAir. We stayed at the Hilton which ended up being under $200 U.S. a person for 3 nights. Our 2 day tour via Aladin tours was $125 U.S. a person. We brought U.S. dollars with us to pay our tour and for tips and such. If drinking alcohol is your thing I would recommend bringing it with you (for those of you outside of Saudi) or buying it at the Duty Free in Cairo. While you can easily find alcohol in Luxor it was either A. wickedly overpriced. B. Awful tasting. or C. Both. Mostly I’m referring to the wine of which I’m picky about. That’s just a friendly tip from me to you.

Happy adventuring….

 

Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt

Last month I popped over to Sharm el-Sheikh, or “Sharm” as it’s referred to by ex-pats and Middle Easterners. I went for 3 nights to celebrate a friend’s birthday. Sharm is a resort town on the Sinai peninsula of Egypt, on the Red Sea. It’s a quick 2hr flight from Riyadh, and makes a nice weekend get-away. The town itself is mostly full of all-inclusive resorts of varying stars, as well as Saudi, Egyptian, British and Russian tourists. It’s known amongst divers as being some of the best waters you can dive in, and there are many dive boats to stay on if that’s your thing.

Sharm is a place of contradictions. You will see Muslim women in swim burkinis or their abayas next to British and Russian tourists in the teeniest swimwear your eyes have ever seen. It’s bizarre and surreal. Safety wise Sharm el-Sheikh is the only safe place on the Sinai peninsula, but as with most security in the Middle East, this is an ever changing thing, so it’s best to follow the situation closely if you’re going and be sure to register with your embassy. The last major terror attack in Sharm was in 2005, although the most recent June tourist attack in Tunisia has shed light on Sharm being a target. Security is reportedly on high alert, but to be quite honest I hardly saw any security at all. Maybe they blended in civilian-style, but I’ve seen more security in Saudi Arabia than we saw here.

I won’t actually name the resort we stayed at because it wasn’t really that great. We spent our time bouncing between the few pools at the resort, going for dips, reading in the shade, having drinks at the swim up bar, or watching the daily belly-dancing and jazzercise classes. They were hugely entertaining. I had wanted to try scuba diving again, but had been fighting a respiratory bug for the last several weeks (thankfully not MERS) so couldn’t do it. The beach area is really rocky so most of the resorts on the bay we stayed on had piers that led out into the ocean to make getting in easier. The water is a beautiful shade of blue with great visibility and tons of fish. The ocean was really rough the time we were there, so while I did go in my fear of water immediately kicked in and I was back out in a matter of minutes.

 

 

 

 

 

The best thing we did while there though, was rent a beach cabana and pretend we were high rollers for the day. For $30 we got a private beachfront cabana with a waiter and wifi. It felt like total luxury and I loved every minute of it. Weather wise it’s super humid. Riyadh has a dry heat which I’ve become accustomed to, so Sharm was pretty close to unbearable during the day with temperatures in the mid to upper 40’s and humidity in the 50’s it was sweltering. The other relaxing thing we did was a 2 hour Egyptian hammam which was classier than my Moroccan hammam experience, but still resulted in me being mostly naked whilst getting a scrub down with my travel mate. Since it was my second experience I felt like quite the experienced hammam-goer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you need a weekend away you could do much worse than to fly over to Sharm el-Sheikh. If you love all-inclusives than you will likely love Sharm. If like me, they’re not really your thing it still makes for a nice weekend out of the sandbox. Go exploring people…..

 

 

 

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