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.
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.
I’d been wanting to visit the Farasan Islands of Saudi Arabia for years, but the plans just never seemed to materialize. Or, if they did it was over the summer months when I knew it would be so hot and humid I would end up with heat stroke, so I didn’t go. This past March a friend of mine who goes there several times a year and has great contacts, organized a weekend trip for about 20 of us expats. The Farasan Islands are a chain of islands off the coast of Saudi to the south towards the border with Yemen. They are a grouping of coral islands. One of the locals we met told me there were around 200 islands, although the only research I can find says there are anywhere between 80-120 islands. So lets say over a hundred such islands. We flew from Riyadh to the city of Jizan and spent a night there before getting up early the following morning to take the public ferry to the largest island of the chain called Farasan.
Jizan is a coastal city about 80km north of the border with Yemen. In the past year or so it (like Riyadh) it has been the focus of Yemeni missile attacks. We weighed the safety risk and decided to go. In Jizan we stayed a night at the Best Western- there are many hotel options in Jizan of varying class. Our hotel was not flashy, but totally fine for one night. The entire trip was organized so we only had to buy our plane tickets. Normally I’m the one who does a lot of the travel planning when I travel with others, so it was lovely to just show up and go with the flow. Note: going with the flow only works if you have zero expectations! My only expectation was for a daily nap which seemed highly doable.
So the public ferry to Farasan took about 90minutes and leaves at 7 in the morning. The island itself is about 50km from the mainland. It’s like a normal public ferry anywhere in the world except with zero lines and tons of pushing. Naturally, women and men are separated in the security areas. We arrived in Farasan and transferred to the Farasan Hotel. I can’t find a website for them but the phone number is +966173161166 if that helps. There are only 2 hotel options on the island as far as I am aware. The other choice is the Coral Hotel which is on the beach but quite a bit more expensive. The Farasan Hotel is not fancy but the staff will make you feel like family and the food is really good, so I would recommend staying there if you are traveling in a group. We had a lovely Arabic breakfast before making our way to the port for our boat tour.
We had 2 boats between our group- later we would realize that we ended up on the unlucky boat, but I’ll save that tale for a little later! Anyways we donned life jackets over top of our abayas until we were out of view of prying eyes and then the abayas immediately came off. The water is the most surreal shade of blue. You know that turquoise colour that’s the most prefect mix of blue and green, and it was stunning. We attempted to stop at a snorkel spot but the current was really strong so we headed off to a more sheltered area. It should come as little surprise to you that I am equally as scared of water as I am of flying. I can swim, but I’m very nervous in the water. Luckily, my favourite Aussie sidekick had agreed to be joined to me the entire time we were in the water which made me more comfortable. We did a little snorkeling. The water is really clear and there were a ton of fish around. We then set off to explore a private beach all to ourselves. Some people roamed the water’s edge collecting shells, others just relaxing in the surf. We then cruised out to a popular fishing area and attempted to catch some fish for lunch, but the sea was really rough that afternoon, and several fellow travelers were getting seasick. So we headed to shore. We found a beach area with cooking huts for a late afternoon siesta. The boats were edged towards the shore so that you could jump over the side into the sand below. Seems easy enough right?! Well I’m anything but graceful, so as I was edging myself over the side I looked down and there was this tie-down hook on the ledge. I remember thinking hmmm that could be dangerous. No sooner am I hoisting myself over does the pocket of my shorts get caught on the hook and there I am dangling from the side of the boat my tip toes touching the sand. As this is happening a wave hit the boat causing it to shift and my toes could no longer touch, leaving me dangling attached only by my pocket. I yelled for help and they were able to get me unhooked, but my shorts were sadly now one pocket short. I cringe to think of what that scenario would’ve looked like had I not had shorts over my swimsuit bottoms!!
We spend the next few hours either napping in the beach huts, collecting seashells, or just hanging out while the boat crew went back out and caught fish for our lunch. It was a perfectly relaxing day. We feasted on veggies and rice and fish on the beach. It was divine. On the way back the wind started to pick up. This coincided with the engine deciding to die. Right next to a rock wall that we were quickly drifting into as the captain tried to get the engine to start. Luckily, one of the guys on our boat had the genius idea to throw the anchor in to prevent us from actually being thrown into the rocks. The other boat eventually realized that we were not behind it and came back to offer assistance. They were finally able to get the engine restarted and we headed back to the port as the sun was setting. The ride back was epic. Our captain was driving full throttle trying to make it back before dark. The waves were smashing over the side of the boat and everyone was drenched and freezing cold. We literally looked like drowned rats. We ended up taking every towel on the boat and draping them over our heads to prevent the water from spraying directly into our faces, while trying to hold on as the boat smashed into the waves. By the time we got to shore we looked like total hot messes. We drove back to the hotel for hot showers and a late dinner of fresh seafood.
The following morning after another delicious breakfast we set off to explore the island. Our first stop was on the modern bridge that connects the two main islands. The views from here are stunning- I just kept thinking I can’t believe this is Saudi Arabia! From here we headed back to the town of Fursan and visited the House of Rifae which belonged to a pearl merchant. There are several ornate stone archways and houses in this area and we spend some time wandering around. Much of it is in varying states of disrepair and I would recommend sturdy shoes if you are exploring as there were bits of wood and nails from the partially collapsed buildings. Once the group was finished taking pictures and exploring, we headed for the nearby 18th century Ottoman Fort. For obvious strategic purposes it’s located on a small hill with views of the ocean. It’s rather small in size and really just consists of one long room with a well for water close by, but it was cool to visit. From here we visited the lovely coffee shop at the historical restored village of Al Qassar. We then made our way back to the hotel stopping off en route at a view point over looking the port and at a local beach before catching the 3pm ferry back to the mainland.
There is also a deer reservation and a coral museum which we did not visit, mostly out of heat exhaustion and just generally being lazy, but some people from our group did. I would highly recommend adding the Farasan Islands to your Saudi bucket list!!! Happy adventuring!
We were careening down an old military tarmac as the vehicle skidded to a stop. In slow motion the guide in the passengers seat reached over and grabbed the steering wheel as the Land Cruiser slowed down. I looked to my left and saw a lone tire rolling by, overtaking the speed of the slowing vehicle. “Hmm. That’s weird.” I thought, and then it dawned on me that we were the only vehicle on this patch of Djibouti road in the middle of the desert, so therefore the tire had to be ours. We came to a stop and the guide and driver got out to assess the damage. The lone tire was still rolling nearly half a kilometer away at this point. Kiwi and I got out to have a look. Not surprisingly there was no tire on the drivers front spot, where clearly a tire should be. The vehicle was titled to that side like a chair with a busted leg. For some not helpful reason the warnings about road travel during some of my pre-trip research popped into my head. “Travel in a caravan in the event that one of the vehicles becomes disabled.” This seemed like solid advice in hindsight. The driver ran off in the direction of the rolling tire and the guide took off to try and find the missing tire bolts, so Kiwi and I busied ourselves with looking at the colourful rocks lining the desert floor and taking selfies, and I thought about the many reasons I love travel. And the number one thing I love is the unpredictability of it. That you can make plans and do the research and then life just happens. And here we were in the Djibouti desert with a missing tire and there was nothing to do but wait to see if it could be fixed. And thankfully a new tire was put in its place and a couple bolts were removed from the back tires as only three bolts could be found and we carried on with our day.
I’m sure some of you are reading this and thinking where the eff is Djibouti? And how the heck did you decide to travel there? Well I’m a lover of off the beaten path type places and a big fan of traveling to places before they become super popular. Every year for Christmas I buy (or get as a gift) Lonely Planet’s “Best in Travel” for whatever the upcoming year is. Then New Years day I flip through it and the seeds of future travel gets planted. The beginning of the book is Lonely Planet’s recommendations of the Top 10 countries for the next year. Bangladesh was on the list several years back, and I loved Bangladesh and low and behold Djibouti was country #4 for 2018. After looking at a few pictures, a 5 min google session and discovering that there were direct flights there from Dubai I was sold. Also I coined the phrase “Shake our Booty in Djibouti” so obviously the trip was happening.
So where exactly is Djibouti? Well it’s in Africa to start with. Specifically the horn of Africa. It is bordered by Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and the Red Sea. Outwards from the Red Sea lies Yemen. It was a French colony in the 19th century and today French and Arabic are the main languages, although like pretty much everywhere the world over English of some form is spoken. The country gained independence in the late 1970’s. Today most of the economy is based off the port which is the 7th largest in the world, and taxes from foreign military. For those of you in the Middle East as I already mentioned there are direct flights via FlyDubai from Dubai several times a week. I will give my full thoughts about them later in this post, but the other easy way to get to Djibouti would be from Addis Ababa, Qatar, Paris or Istanbul, as all have direct flights. A new train line also opened up making it easy to get to Djibouti from Ethiopia by land in under 8 hours.
Kiwi and I flew from Dubai and landed in Djibouti in the afternoon. I had arranged for us to be picked up from the airport by the guide I had organized from Somaliland Travel named Akram. There are plenty of hotels in Djibouti, but not very many that are of western standards. We erred on the side of safety as we weren’t really sure what to expect. The only western hotels in Djibouti city are the Kempinski and the Sheraton. The Sheraton has horrific reviews so that made our decision easy. The Kempinski is very fancy, and very pricey, but if you are a single lady there are many, many military-ish men roaming the hotel so eye candy is a free added bonus. Operation “Shake our Booty in Djibouti” was off to a good start. The cheaper more basic hotel my guide recommended was the Atlantic Hotel which did have good reviews. We spent one night at the Kempinski before we started our tour the following morning. The Kempinski has a lovely infinity pool with gorgeous sunset views over the Gulf of Tadjoura and a really delicious Italian restaurant FYI.
The next morning after a delicious breakfast brunch Akram picked us up and we set off for our Djibouti adventure. First stop- a quick drive thru the city to change money. We visited the African and European Quarter where all the banks are located. Interestingly, there are no domestic banks in Djibouti. And equally interestingly is that the changing of money happens on the streets and not in the banks. There are these olderish grandmother looking ladies sitting on the side of the busy downtown roads in plastic patio chairs holding bags of money. This is how money is changed. I asked Akram how much money each one would have on them- he said around $1500 U.S. and that crime is very low. After money was exchanged we headed towards Dikhil via Africa’s busiest shipping road connecting the port in Djibouti to Ethiopia and on wards. We passed by small villages with goats, camels and monkeys dotting the landscape. As you can imagine village life as in many parts of the world is hard and stricken with poverty. People live in huts and work the land. The people of Djibouti are largely nomadic and graze their animals outside of their villages. The largest ethnic populations are the Somali Issa (a clan of the Dir) and the Afar people.
In Dikhil we stopped at a local restaurant for lunch. Initially, I had expected Djibouti food to be similar to Ethiopian given their close proximity. I couldn’t have been more wrong. We ate mixed salad and french fries and some sort of spaghetti and some of the best seasoned beef I’ve ever had. So good. From here we left the comforts of the pothole lined roads for the adventures of off-roading. About 90 minutes later is when we would find ourselves taking selfies as Akram and the driver worked out what to do about our tire. From here we continued driving east toward Lake Abbe. The scenery started to change as hills approached in the distance and the ground changed from sand to a dark rocky matter. We came up over a hill and in the distance we could see the chimney rock formations the lake is known for. Lake Abbe borders Ethiopia. In the 1950’s Ethiopia built a dam upstream which caused much of the lake to be drained and on the floor of the lake bed these limestone chimneys were discovered. The entire area looks like what I imagine the surface of Mars to look like- it’s jarring and rugged and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. We stopped and walked around some of the larger chimneys before heading off to the nomadic camp for the night.
Now people for sure thought we were more than a little crazy for going to Djibouti, but when we told them we planned to camp in nomadic tents in the Djibouti desert this was when we got the “you’re certifiably crazy” type of looks. The camp area consisted of many thatched roofed tents, a cooking area, and a shower and toilet area. The camp borders a local village. Now in no way was this a “glamping” type of experience. It’s like one step up from tent camping, but it was totally doable for a night. There was some running water to wash your hands with and generator that ran for a couple hours after dark. I did not attempt a shower as that seemed like way too much effort for me. Kiwi and I weren’t the only ones staying there- a group of Italian tourists and a French family would also be camping with us. We had some drinks while watching the sunset and then were called for dinner. The wind had really picked up by this point in the evening which was great because if meant the mosquitos weren’t an issue. After dinner was when the real fun began. The local villagers came to perform some traditional singing and dancing. They pulled random tourists up and had them dance along. Now I have zero rhythm and unless I’ve had several drinks I’m not a huge fan of dancing for other people, but I just kinda went with it. Kiwi danced once and then she’d had enough. After a couple more songs 2 of the villagers ran around the corner and came back with these old rifles. In my head I was like “now things are getting interesting!” So there was some dancing with the guns and the guns were pointed towards the ground and then towards the sky while the dancers were yelling “eyeyeyeyeyeyeyeeee.” And then one of the best things on the trip happened. I got handed a gun. In the desert of Djibouti. And pulled up to dance with my gun. And dance I did. Like I’ve never danced before. To be fair up until this point I had never danced with a gun before, but I do hope to repeat this one day again! After that excitement it was time to go to bed. The wind was still raging, so we didn’t think to cover ourselves with the mosquito nets- which was a terrible idea we would find out a few hours later. The wind was trashing the thatching of the tents and making quite a bit of noise and every time I heard something I yelled to Kiwi “Who Dat?!” This made us giggle endlessly. Truth be told 2 months later it still does. A couple hours later we awoke to a dead quiet. Well a quiet except for that annoying sound of buzzing and then the itching that kicks in when you realize you’ve been fed on by a swarm of mosquitos. So my tips if you find yourself camping in the Djibouti desert would be: 1) bring a flashlight, 2) bring bug spray and 3) use the bloody mosquito net- they gave you one for a reason!
The following morning after not a great nights sleep we awoke as the sun was just starting the creep over the horizon and set out down to the lake bed. The sun coming up was one of the most magical parts of the trip. It was truly stunning as the intensity of the light changed from dim to bright orange. I took so many pictures trying to capture just the perfect moment. We then walked over to some nearby thermal pools which cast of type of smoky fog into the air around them. Then it was back to the camp for breakfast before continuing on with the days adventures. We drove back the way we came towards the village of Dikhil and from here we headed north towards Lake Assal.
En route to Lake Assal we stopped off at a couple different lookouts. One was the Djibouti version of the Grand Canyon. I’ve tried to google the exact name of the place but with no luck. Basically though it is the meeting point of three tectonic plates that will eventually (in like a million years) split Djibouti into half- part belonging to the Asia continent and the rest to the African continent. The other cool place we stopped was overlooking Lac du Goubet which isn’t really a lake as it connects to the Gulf of Tadjoura. Apparently there is really good diving here and you can dive between the tectonic plates. Sounds super cool and scary as hell. The other thing Djibouti is known for is diving with whale sharks which is best between the months of November to February.
So eventually we arrived at Lake Assal. This lake is the lowest point in Africa and the salt content here is nearly twice as salty as the Dead Sea. The water is the most stunning shade of blue/turquoise with salt accumulating on the lakes shore. We wandered down to the lake edge to take some photos. We were completely unprepared and didn’t bring towels, so floating in it wasn’t an option. There was also nowhere really to change into or out of our swimsuits. The lake itself is pretty much undeveloped, but it’s so stunning that I imagine it won’t be long before a five star hotel is built onto the shore. There are locals selling salt from the lake, crystals and goats heads that have been crystallized after being in the lake a couple days. There is also a huge port built near to the lake for a Chinese company that is exporting the salt.
After this we started the drive back to Djibouti. Our plan was to spend 2 nights relaxing in Djibouti poolside before flying to Dubai for the weekend. Remember when I said earlier that one of the things I loved so much about travel was the unpredictability of it? Well the morning we were supposed to fly out I got a message from FlyDubai that our flight was canceled so we would be rebooked the following day. This was hella annoying because we had to book another night in Djibouti which was not exactly cheap, our accommodation in Dubai was non-refundable, and we were missing out on boozy brunch. FlyDubai was not very helpful in providing any type of compensation- in fact we got the run around for hours and eventually they told us the cancellation was weather related as there was fog in Dubai. Yet our flight was the only flight cancelled. I suspect that it was actually because the flight was under-booked as our flight to Djibouti was less than 1/3 full.
After getting over out initial annoyance at the derailing of our plans we did what any seasoned travelers would do and regrouped. I was hell bent on driving a rickshaw so we called Akram and he organized for us to go driving. We headed to the outskirts of the city center. On the way we passed a taxi that had a Canada flag along the windshield and Canada painted on the side. I was all like “follow that taxi!!!” And so we did, and the guy pulled over and in his excitement to get out of the taxi to come meet a Canadian he forgot to put the car in park, but he quickly got back in sorted the brake out and then it was time for a Djibouti style photo shoot. And there was a bunch of thumbs up and high fiving and I was loving it. Next it was “Operation acquire a Rickshaw.” Akram arranged a guy who had a new rickskaw and I jumped in the front with Kiwi, Akram and the rickshaw owner in the back. Since I’d driven a rickshaw only a couple weeks previous in Egypt my skills were on point and once I initially got a feel for the clutch we were off. We headed out onto Africa’s busiest road. It was great fun, and no one died, but I’m sure my Pops would’ve had a heart attack at the size of the trucks we shared the road with. After we were finished we posed for pictures and the rickshaw owner told me what a good driver I was and offered that we could go into business together! Super tempting- I do love rickshaws!!!
In the end after a ton of persistence on my part FlyDubai did compensate us for the cancellation. It was a really frustrating process and in my opinion they could really work on their customer service. I did just recently fly with them from Dubai to Belgrade (to use the credit) and they were on time, and the plane was really new and I have zero complaints from that trip. The one great thing that came out of the delay though was that when we arrived a day late to the Westin in Dubai and explained to them what happened they upgraded us to this massive suite which made us so happy and we felt like real high rollers.
Visas to Djibouti are available on arrival for many nationalities at the airport for $60 U.S. until April 30, 2018. After that time you can apply for an E-visa here. At the time of writing this the website wasn’t working and I couldn’t change it from French to English, so good luck! If you want to get in touch with Akram about organizing a tour you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or send him a whatsapp at +25377621884. I would highly recommend him- he’s young, but he’s passionate about Djibouti tourism and the tire incident could’ve easily happened to anyone else anywhere else!
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.
I can’t believe that I’ve been back in Saudi Arabia for a full year, as of last month. If I’m being honest if feels like much longer than that as I’ve packed a lot in during those 12 months. In an attempt to get somewhat caught up on blogging I decided that the fastest way to share with you some of the places I visited over the last year would be to do a few photography posts. One of the places that I really enjoyed was spending a few days last April solo in Split Croatia. April was the perfect time to go as the temperatures were moderate and the crowds weren’t as crazy as they are peak season. Of course if you are going to Croatia solely to use the beaches April would be too cold, and I’d recommend going late May to September.
My time in Split was spend mostly wandering Diocletian Palace. I especially loved the underground parts of the palace as they filled my love of things decaying and abandoned. I sipped cappuccinos on the waterfront, exploring the piazzas and back alleyways taking in the ornate statues and detail in the architecture. Enjoy!
Every year I try to do a post about my favourite travel destinations of the past year. So in keeping with tradition I’ve compiled a list of my top 10 travels from 2017. In many ways it feels like the past year flew by, and then at the same time there were some months that looking back at them moved by achingly slow. I fit in a lot of travel this year. I shared a lot of great memories. I nursed myself through a heartbreak. I connected with a cousin I didn’t really know I had and visited her twice this year. I almost delivered a baby on a plane. I drove a rickshaw in Ethiopia. I was flown from Georgia to Bahrain in business class on a flight were I was the only passenger. I’ve made some very dear friends this past year- that has probably been the biggest blessing for me. While the travel was great- the actual human interactions I had are the thing that stands out the most.
In 2017 I visited 18 countries not including Saudi Arabia. 12 of them new to me. I took 38 international flights, which for someone terrified of flying is no easy feat. I traveled solo, with a tinder date, with my Kiwi sidekick, to see my cousin and then home for a few weeks. I traveled by plane, bus, boat, rickshaw and car. So without further delay here’s my 2017 travel recommendations in chronological order…..
Croatia is stunning. In April I spent a week in Dubrovnik with a fella I met on tinder a month before I left for Saudi Arabia. He was a great travel partner and I would happily have him be my travel side kick again- he was only mildly irritated when I asked him to take the hundreth posed picture of me in a row. And he was pretty much down to do and eat where ever I wanted- what more can you ask for in a travel companion?! After a week in Dubrovnik he flew back to Canada and I spent a few days in Split solo exploring the city. As I previously blogged Dubrovnik is a great base to visit nearby Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina on separate day trips. We spent our time in Dubrovnik exploring the Old City, taking tons of postcard worthy pictures and sipping Croatia’s delicious wines. I would highly recommend to avoid both Dubrovnik and Split during the peak tourist season. We were there in April and it was the beginning of the cruise ships- I would have been highly irritated if we had gone when the reportedly 10,000 daily cruisers get dropped in the Old Town (although reportedly they are capping this number at 8,000 in 2018.)
My favourite thing that we did while in Croatia was explore the nearby abandoned resort Town of Kupari just south of Dubrovnik. I love abandoned places and it was super cool to be able to wander through these large empty hotels and take pictures. It had that eerie beauty to it, and it was very easy to imagine what it must’ve looked like in their prime time. We also visited the nearby town of Cavtat which has a very cute water front and some delicious restaurants. The Croatian coastline is spectacular.
2017 was a lot about Europe for me. Seeing as Frankfurt is a direct flight from Riyadh and has easy connections to just about every large European city it’s pretty easy to make a long weekend into a trip to Europe. My Kiwi sidekick and I opted for Switzerland seeing as neither of us had ever been and we were traveling in May which made for perfect weather there. We stayed in Geneva where we strolled the cobble stoned lanes, ate our weight in cheese fondue, and stumbled upon Camino signs which only solidified me knowing that I want to walk the Camino de Santiago again. One of the coolest things we did though was take a day trip to nearby Mont Blanc in the Swiss Alps.
Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in the Alps range and the highest in Europe. We did a bus trip to the French town of Chamonix and from there we took two gondolas to the top of the mountain. I’m scared of heights and being confined to a small car packed with people dangling from a cable from the top of a mountain was moderately terrifying. Both Kiwi and I rode most of the way with our eyes closed performing lamaze child birth breathing techniques. But once up top the views were stunning. We even concurred our fear of heights by walking out into this glass floored room that’s 1035 meters off the ground.
Azerbaijan was one of the countries that surprised me the most last year. I had no idea what to expect and it actually blew me away. It had a Middle Eastern vibe, but felt very European. The buildings were very European but accented with Islamic architectural features. I felt totally comfortable traveling there solo, and it was pretty easy to get there from Riyadh as it’s a direct flight from Dubai to the capital Baku. Some of you may never have heard of this country (and I’ve yet to properly blog about) but I’ll tell you a few helpful facts. Azerbaijan borders both Europe and Asia and is a predominantly Muslim country, but it felt the least religious of all the Muslim countries I have traveled to. It is in the Caucasus region and borders the countries of Georgia, Armenia, Russia, Iran and Turkey, and Baku is on the Caspian Sea. The phrase “the old meets the new” or the “east meets the west” are very fitting in relation to Azerbaijan.
I spent two nights in Baku which was the perfect amount of time to see the city. The Old Town in Baku is really cool. The buildings are of an architectural style I had never seen before with double story homes with very ornate wooden balconies. I would later see this same style in Georgia. I wandered the Old Town and climbed the Maiden Tower which has a great panorama view of the city from the top. I strolled the walkways near Nizami square soaking in the sunshine and fresh air. I walked the corniche overlooking the Caspian Sea. One evening I walked over to Sahidler Xiyabani Park with is a really ornately decorated park that has amazing views overlooking the city, and also perfect views of the iconic Flames Towers. There is an impressive nightly light show on the Flames Towers featuring flames, and running water, and the Azerbaijani flags. If you’re looking for somewhere a little off the tourist track and an easy long weekend trip from Riyadh I would highly recommend Azerbaijan!!
The country. Not the state. Just to be clear. If I had to rank these countries in order of my favourites Georgia would’ve been at the top of my list. Georgia first landed on my radar after seeing a friend’s picture from a trip she and her boyfriend took. Or more specifically a single view from a balcony of a hotel at a range of mountains that I later researched to be the country of Georgia. I was determined to wake up to that same view one day. I spent a week solo in Georgia. A couple nights in the capital of Tbilisi before retreating for the mountain views of Kazbegi that had inspired my trip, and then a night at the end back in Tbilisi. The best decision I made while in Georgia was to hire a guide/driver from Instagram. At first it sounds a little sketchy- having some youngish guy pick you up a night from the airport in a country you’ve never been to as a solo woman traveler. But, I’m a big believer in listening to your gut. And my gut said that Zuka was legit- and in fact he was. Zuka would be my sidekick over the next week. He drove me around, told me the history of the region, and we rocked out to Enrique Inglasias’s song “Bailando” quite likely 100 times.
Zuka drove me to the famous Jvari Monastery, to the wine region of Kakheti, and later into the mountain region of Kazbegi close to the Russian border where I spend 3 days taking in the most stunning mountain views and watching the changing weather. I spent time in Tbilisi and was mesmerized by the graffiti art around the city. If you are a foodie at all I would highly recommend adding Georgia to your list. Georgian food is fantastic- my favourite was the Georgian Salad made of cucumbers, tomatoes, with a walnut paste and Khinkali which are pork dumplings. And trust me- Georgian wine is amazing. If you go be sure to use Zuka– tell him I sent you, and be sure to listen to a little Enrique or whatever music is trendy when you go!
The icing on the cake of my trip to Azerbaijan and Georgia was turning up to the airport to fly back to Riyadh and getting upgraded to business class and then coming to find out that not only was I upgraded, but that I was the only passenger on the entire flight. It will be difficult to ever top that travel experience!
Ethiopia was definitely the most exciting trip I took this year in terms of things just generally not going as plan but still working out in the end. From the get go this trip was a hot mess. Our flight was delayed in Riyadh for 8 hours. 8 hours after we had already been awake for nearly 24hours. Then there was a medical emergency where a woman was in questionable labour and didn’t speak English. We assessed her and kept her comfortable and for landing she and I were moved up to Business class. I had instructed her via a Swahili translator that if she were to feel like her water broke or that she was bleeding she was to squeeze my arm. Literally as the plane touches down she squeezes my arm. So here we are taxiing to the gate and I’m under her dress assessing her. Thankfully she was neither bleeding, nor did her water break and she could still feel the baby moving. In the midst of all this excitement my kiwi sidekick proudly told me she knew the Swahili word for Giraffe. Not super helpful!!
Three of our four flight legs were delayed that trip. Ethiopia Air is a bit of a scheduling disaster and I wouldn’t fly with them again unless there were zero other options. My Kiwi mate lost consciousness likely due to altitude in the town of Lalibela. That was medical emergency numero 2 of the trip. One minute she’s saying she doesn’t feel well, the next she’s laying on the floor. The greatest disappointment of the trip though was our Ethiopian attempt at wine tasting. We literally drove 3-4 hours each way to go wine tasting at a French winery only to be told that there was in fact no wine to taste. I nearly cried. Ok. I might’ve actually cried.
It wasn’t all bad though. Ethiopia is an intriguing country with amazing food. It’s colourful and vibrant. The rock churches of Lalibela are amazing and totally worth the effort it took to get there. We were even able to convince our tour guide in Lalibela to organize us a tour by auto rickshaw in which I was the driver and he was happy to comply. He proudly told us that I was the first westerner to driver Bajaj (rickshaw) in the history of Lalibela. We spent time exploring Addis Ababa and even got to meet up with one of the housekeepers that I work with here in Saudi. She and her family took us out for dinner and I oogled their cute kids and we decided I would take one to Canada- but then we decided Canada was far too cold for them. Ethiopia was both extremes- frustrating beyond belief at times, and then totally rewarding and heart filling.
I’d previously been to Austria twice before. Once way back in 2010 to Vienna, and then in 2016 to Salzburg with my mom. Both times I loved the food and especially the wine. In August I visited Bratislava Slovakia and then traveled by boat up the river Danube to Vienna and later onward to Slovenia. The main reason I was stopping off for a night was to meet up with a cousin I had only really learned about the month before. Her mom and my Dad were cousins so I guess we are second cousins- although after meeting her she feels very much like a first cousin to me. I stayed right near St Stephen’s Cathedral which is beautiful and my room had rooftop views over the city.
Even though I was only there one night I had really wished I had the time to stay another couple nights. My cousin and I went for a traditional Austrian meal and she toured me around the city on foot pointing out the important buildings and telling me the history of the city. We sipped delicious Austrian wine at a rooftop bar and tried to piece together our family history. And best of all we made plans to ensure our paths would cross again….
I’d long wanted to visit Lake Bled- it’s on many people’s favourite places they’ve traveled to list, so I had to see if it held up to the hype. I spent 8 days in Slovenia split between its capital city of Ljubljana and three nights of total relaxation at Lake Bled. Ljubljana is a great city- it’s small and easy to navigate, if felt totally safe as a female traveler and there’s enough to see to fill a few days. Oh, and of course the food and wine is really good. It’s pretty touristy and it being the summer it was pretty packed, but the temperature was perfect for evening strolling while eating gelato (a favourite past time of mine). I did a couple free walking tours while there. As I’ve previously mentioned many, many times I’m a huge fan of taking part in free walking tours. They are offered in almost every major city- they’re a great way to get your bearings by walking a city by foot, learning the history of the region, meeting other travelers and they are cheap. While not exactly free the guides work off of tips- I’m happy to give them the equivalent of $10 US for someone to walk me around for 2-3hours telling animated tales. Always money well spent. If you are only in a city for a short period of time I’d always recommend joining a walking tour. Make sure to visit the central market in Ljubljana as there’s tons of delicious food, and during the warmer months there’s an outdoor food festival on Fridays called “Open Kitchen.” They serve international food and alcohol and it’s great fun to sit outside sampling different food.
After spending a night in Ljubljana I took the bus to Lake Bled for 3 nights. This part of my trip was a bit of a splurge and I had booked myself a room with a balcony over looking the lake, facing towards the castle. I spent my time walking the 6km lake path, climbing up to the castle which had postcard worthy views of the lake and town below and taking boat tours around the lake. In the evenings I would sit on my balcony sipping wine, reading a book and watching the magnificent sunsets. I would look up every paragraph or so to see the sky changing colours. Deepening. Each moment more beautiful than the one before. Watching as the light sparkled across the lake. The yellow brightening into orange then into pink and then into a light mauve. The sky looked like it was expanding. As the sky fell darker the last bits of light faded the castle on the opposite cliff grew brighter- its windows illuminated from within as the last bit of sun slipped away. Those sunsets were my favourite part of being in Slovenia. Lake Bled is a very romantic place and would be a great place to take a partner, but equally so if you’re looking to clear your head and relax which was exactly why I was there.
In October I flew into Helsinki Finland and made my way down thru Estonia, to Latvia and then Lithuania before flying to Berlin to meet up with my cousin. Estonia was a place I’d heard a lot about this past year. If you’re into travel at all then you also have probably heard a lot about Estonia, specifically about the city of Tallinn which has been an up and coming travel destination. I spend a couple nights in Helsinki and then took the ferry to Tallinn. The ferry to Tallinn is more of a booze cruise for the Finns. They go over to Estonia where the booze are cheaper and stock up. The ferry itself is only about four hours. It’s super easy to get between the two countries. I’m used to ferries in Canada or the US. They are low key, relaxing type of sailing. Often you sit and watch the view from the windows or go to the upper decks for some fresh air. Ferries in this part of the world are really more of a cruise entertainment experience. There’s singing and choreographed dance moves. There was also a stuffed mascot that was involved in the dancing. While waiting for the ferry to board I was approached by a couple. They were Finnish and very, very drunk. And/or possibly on meth- it was hard to say. He was a little overly friendly and started chatting me up. Being the polite Canadian I was I answered and the following conversation ensued……. Him “Where are you from?” Me “Canada.” Him “Hmmm never heard of it.” So I then told him that I lived in the Middle East and was here on vacation. He then started yelling “BOMB.” Quite loud while pointing at my suitcase and then he started laughing. I was mortified and thankful no one nearby was taking him serious. He then tried to hug me and he and his lady then proceeded to overshare their entire life stories. How they met, how many kids they had, how much alcohol they planned to buy. The ship literally could not board fast enough. I kept thinking that at some point I was likely going to get pick pocketed, but that didn’t happen. They were just very friendly Finns. I managed to lose them in the crowd as we boarded, but later saw them going into the Duty Free. He winked at me and waved.
So I arrived in Tallinn Estonia on a cold autumn afternoon after being mistaken for a terrorist. I had booked a cute AirBnb in the Old Town and it was perfect for my three night stay. Tallinn is a very charming city. The Old Town is cobble stoned and easily walkable and you could easily picture yourself walking there 200 years ago. Because I was there during the off season that meant less tourists, and that it was pretty easy to get a table in some of the citiy’s best restaurants. If you are a foodie then add Tallinn to your list. There are so many great restaurants there. My favourite was Restoran O(But the “O” has those two little dots above it that my keyboard won’t let me type.) They had an amazing tasting menu with a wine pairing and all the dishes are from local foods influenced by the Island of Saaremaa the largest island in Estonia.
The second day I was there I joined a walking tour that wound it’s way thru the city to some very scenic overlooks all the while learning the history of the country. Estonia most recently became independent in 1991. The language is similar to Finnish or Hungarian and they are not gender specific. Also they have no future tense so instead of saying phrases like “in the future” they say “in 5 months time.” Also a large percentage of Estonians are atheists. That’s all the fun facts I can remember right now. You’re welcome. There is also a very cool part of town that has an urban industrial feel and is full of artists, graffiti and bars and restaurants. It’s called Kalamaya and it’s an easy walk from the Old Town. It would be a shame to visit Tallinn and not leave the Old Town as the city has much more to offer.
After Tallin Estonia, I traveled to Riga Lativa on a one way tour bus that was really like a day tour with stop offs on the way between the two cities. This was a great way to see the countryside as it was October the leaves were changing colour and the air was crisp. Fall is my favourite season hands down. En route from Tallin to Riga we stopped off at small villages to walk around and wander thru some old castle ruins and then hiked up to some caves that were made of sandstone. Leave it to me to walk 700Km across Spain without falling only to walk like 1km on a muddy path in Latvia to make a massive spectacle of myself. As it turns out I don’t have nearly the cat like reflexes I had previously convinced myself I had. I realized this whilst laying on my back in a muddy puddle. Mud in my hair and covering most of my jeans I opted not to change into the only other clean pair of pants I had, lest I repeat the same incident.
We arrived in Riga in the rain and in the dark, but it being a weekend the city was just getting started. It was gearing up for the bachelor parties and mayhem that would later spill out of the bars onto the main street. The city felt vibrant and full of energy. The following morning I joined…. you guessed it….a walking tour of the Old Town. Riga is known to have one of the largest amounts of Art Nouveau architecture in the world. I’m a big fan of this style of architecture and I had a great time walking out of the Old Town to the nearby neighbourhoods where the vast majority of these buildings are located. The Old Town of Riga though is lovely. The alleys are cobble stoned and quaint, there are several open squares, and you can see the remnants of the old city walls. Interspersed with exploring the city on foot I took many stops for cappuccinos and of course wine. In fact one of the best places I came across that trip was a place called “Easy Wine” in the Old Town. It was a wine bar that had like 60 different kinds of wine in a vending machine. Wine. Vending Machine. Sounds like heaven to me.
Germany was another place I’d been to a few times. I went to Munich for Oktoberfest a few years back and visited the Christmas Market in Frankfurt two winters ago. I ended my trip to the Balkans in Berlin for two reasons. First, my cousin was living there (the one I had met in Vienna in August) and I was keen to spend more time with her. The second reason was that I wanted to get a tattoo covered and I had found an artist I really liked who was in Berlin. I spent four nights there with no real plan other than to hang out with my cousin and get my new tattoo. Other then that I just wanted to spend some time outside walking the city and eating good food. Luckily my cousin is very knowledgeable about WWII history so she walked me around the city explaining to me the history and pointing out important sites. We walked the East West gallery which has urban art painted on portions of the Berlin Wall. We visited the Mauerpark market which sells a little bit of this and a little bit of that and was insanely packed with uber trendy hipsters. My cousin introduced me to curry wurst which pairs great with beer and are basically sausages in a curry ketchup sauce. Fun fact: you can walk all over town sipping your beer. No one will say a dang thing about it.
I loved all the different neighbourhoods and how walkable the city was. I’m a big fan of big cities and I really liked Berlin. I was also lucky enough to be there during the Festival of Lights where there were different light installations spread across the city with evening shows. I’m pretty sure Berlin will be a city that I’ll return to- most likely in the spring when my cousin is back there as I’d love to explore some more and spend some time with her!
So that’s some of what I got up to in 2017. I ended the year by ringing in my birthday in Bahrain. 2018 is starting to take shape and I’ve got some plans in the works. As always I’m still not exactly sure when my final exit from Saudi Arabia will be. Right now I’m just taking it day by day. In a couple weeks I’m going to Luxor Egypt for a long weekend which has been something I’ve wanted to do the last couple years. Hot air ballooning over the Valley of the Kings is on my bucket list so I’m pretty pumped. I’m looking into going to the Louvre in Abu Dhabi in early February and then flying to Djibouti with my kiwi sidekick for a few days. Many of you reading this are probably like hold up did she just make up another country again? No. Djibouti is next to Somalia and according to the Lonely Planet otherwise known as my travel bible, Djibouti is its 4th pick for up and coming country in 2018. After that I don’t have anything set in stone. I’d like to visit the “Stans” in the spring. Specifically Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan. Something really off the beaten path for a few weeks. That’s all from me. I hope 2018 is starting off as a good one for you all, and I hope this post gives you some new ideas for your upcoming adventures!
First off I’m sorry. I’ve been an absolutely terrible blogger as of late. As I mentioned in my last post I’ve taken on some new responsibilities at work which has affected my schedule- mostly in a positive way, but between work and having a social life there hasn’t been much time left over for blogging. With the winter upon us here it means the weather is perfect to be out and about in the day- and the last couple weeks I’ve been doing some local sightseeing that I wanted to share with you. As many of you know things here in Saudi Arabia are rapidly changing. There is a big push by the new Crown Prince to bring Saudi Arabia into the 21st century, and fast. Mostly, that means opening the country up in terms of women’s rights, employment opportunities for Saudis, and tourism. It is planned that tourists visas (although I’m sure on a restricted basis) and women driving will come in 2018. Just this last week it was released that movie theatres will open as early as March 2018. Things are changing. It feels like nearly everyday there is some type of announcement in the news. Enough about that though- lets talk of what I’ve been exploring here in Riyadh.
If you follow my travels at all you know that I have a love of urban art. One of my favourite parts of travel is stumbling across some artistic graffiti. When I first came to Saudi back in 2010 you would never see this type of thing. Arabic type tagging was common on fences and walls, but actual urban art I can’t ever recall seeing. Earlier this year I attended the horse races here and there was a huge painted mural of the first King of Saudi Arabia. That was the first time I had seen art of this type here in the Kingdom. Last week while on Talia street I noticed an entire wall filled with urban art. I immediately made my driver stop and got out to take pictures. As a not especially artsy person I’m jealous of people who can paint and draw. My mom is a water colour artist and she definitely didn’t pass those skills down to me. There was a mural of the current King praying, and scene of a man doing his ablutions, and there was a large mural with the Riyadh skyline in the back with a map of Saudi Arabia and some type of reference to the new transit system that is being built all across the city. There was also a lot of Arabic writing that I have no idea what it says, but it looked cool nonetheless.
Last week Kiwi and I embarked on a expedition to visit Salaam Park a huge park with a man-made lake that you can pedal boat on and a local date market. Typical to any adventure in Saudi it did not go quite as planned. For example opening hours here an a mere suggestion. Online the park is listed as opening at 1pm. Yeah, I know it’s weird that a park wouldn’t just be open all day every day…..but hey, this is Saudi. So a little before 2pm we rock up to the park. Hmmmm- there are like zero other cars in the parking lot. We walk up to the ticket booth- yes ticket booth. It costs 5 riyals to get in (that’s like US$1.25). Sign above the ticket both states the opening hours as being……you guessed it 1pm. But really it opens at 3pm. So in the mean time we attempted to visit the large date market and nearby vegetable market to take some photos. Except that google maps instead directed us to a date store- same, same but different. So that was fail numero 2 of the day. So back to the park we went. By this time it was open. We strolled along the path that loops the lake. It’s lined with popcorn stalls, and stalls selling trinkets and like a hundred stay cats. Kiwi was in heaven because she calls cats “her people” so she was feeding them food and I was watching the ruckus that ensued.
There is a large fountain in the middle of the lake and plenty of grass spots to lay out a picnic. I would say to go early or go during the week as I’m sure it turns into a packed frenzy on the weekends. Saudis tend to not use garbage cans to dispose of their things- they are more inclined to just leave things on the ground where they fall so the grass was intermittently littered with trash. Apparently after 4pm there are boat tours on the lake. It should be noted that this is not a huge lake- so likely the boat tour is like 5min tops. There are roped off areas to pedal boat in. One for men and a teeny tiny one for the ladies. On our way back to meet our driver Kiwi grabbed my arm and squealed “you aren’t going to believe this.” I turned my head in the direction she was pointing and there was the best thing I’ve ever seen in my time in Saudi. Behind a chain link fence was what appeared to be a deflated mechanical bull. Yeah. Let that soak in. Somewhere in a park in Riyadh Saudi Arabia sits a mechanical bull. Now naturally, it wasn’t open when we were there, and I’m quite certain adult women are not meant to ride it. But mark my words- ride that bull one day I will. I’ve just added it to my Saudi bucket list. It’s currently activity #16, obviously not by order of importance.
So after we had walked the park we had our driver take us the Kingdom Tower as we wanted the visit the Skywalk. I’d been up there several years ago, but never at sunset- so our driver weaved in and out of traffic to get us there before the sun set. Kingdom Tower is probably Saudi Arabia’s most iconic building (after the Holy Kaaba in Mecca.) The tower faces north/south not east to west so you don’t really get amazing views of the actual sunset, but as the sun sets the reflecting light in the sky is pretty spectacular. Kiwi and I took tons of pictures and once it was dark we made our way back down and headed to a nearby restaurant I’d been wanting to try.
A while back I’d seen an add pop up on my Facebook feed for this place called Serafina (sometimes having google invade your privacy can turn into a positive thing.) In the add there was a video of some pasta dish that is prepared in a wheel of cheese. I’ll just let that sink in for a minute. Pasta. Wheel of Cheese. So Kiwi and I go and that’s the only thing I’m planning to order- except it’s not on the menu. So I ask the waiter and he’s like- “mam, we have. Is special dish. For 2-3 people.” And Kiwi and I are like “challenge accepted!” So the meal comes and it’s wheeled over on a cart. On one side of the cart is an enormous cheese wheel and the other side is like a hot plate with a pan full of pasta in a cream sauce. And the guy takes a knife and breaks up some of the cheese on the inside of the cheese wheel and then pours the hot pasta in and stirs it around. And it was the best. I mean how could pasta swirled in a cheese wheel not be anything short of delicious right?! So for my Riyadh readers if you haven’t been you should definitely go and gain about 5lbs from cheese and pasta. I highly recommend it.
So that’s a little bit about what I’ve been up to. I also went desert diamond hunting with some friends last week which I will tell you more about in an upcoming post. For those of you celebrating the holidays I’m wishing you a very Merry Christmas and an upcoming year full of adventure. xoxo
Last month I spent 2 weeks traveling solo from Helsinki Finland thru Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and then ending with a few days in Berlin. Prior to going my immune system was not great and a combination of back to back traveling, taking on some new roles at work and just being generally run down resulted in me getting sick the couple days before I left. Truth be told I wasn’t especially jazzed to be going on this trip- the thought of spending 2 weeks in my bed was sounding pretty great (insert pitty party here). Thankfully though, as soon as my feet hit Finnish soil (and I checked into my swank hotel) I was out of my funk and ready to see what Helsinki had to offer. A couple years ago I spent a bit of time in northern Finland- specifically Lapland where Santa lives, but never got a chance to see Helsinki.
Helsinki is hella expensive as is most of Scandinavia. Basically it’s kinda in between Paris and Iceland in terms of expensive. The trade off though is that even though things like food cost a lot, I never had a bad meal. I spent 2 nights in Helsinki- basically landing early afternoon and then leaving early 2 days later- so I really only had a day and a half to explore. I stayed in the city center meaning that I was easy walking distance to the water and to shopping and a few churches and sites that I wanted to see. After checking into my hotel I wandered towards the water and found that there was a fish market where boats lined the harbour and sold local pickled varieties of fish from the backs of the boats. The air was crisp and smelled salty like the sea and that was all it took to get me out of my travel funk. That first afternoon I walked along the waterfront and went to the Central Market. The Central Market has a wine store, coffee shops and places to buy fresh fish, as well as places to buy fish sandwiches and oysters. It’s pretty awesome. I then walked up to Uspenski Cathedral an Orthodox cathedral from the late 1800’s. Later I visited the nearby Helsinki Cathedral which is up a steep flight of stairs. The outside is much cooler than the inside. I went at sunset which made for some great pictures.
The next day I spent part of the morning organizing a ferry ticket for the following day to take me from Helsinki to Tallinn Estonia (more on this in an upcoming post). Seeing as it was the beginning of October, the weather was chilly, rainy and pretty windy. The one great thing about traveling at this time of year is that the leaves had just started to change colours so it was a beautiful landscape of reds, oranges and yellows. I decided to take a ferry to the nearby island of Suomenlinna- the ferry takes about 20min to get to the island and the views of the Helsinki skyline off the back of the ferry are amazing. I stood outside in the chilly air taking in the scenery. Suomenlinna is a fortress, some parts of it from the 1700’s and it is now a UNESCO heritage site. The island itself is free- you just have to pay for the ferry to and from. There is a residential portion of the island (actually it’s comprised of 6 linked islands) as well as cafes, and museums. I spend my time wandering the main path that wound past the church, past the fortress structures and past a hidden beach. I took tons of photos of the changing leaves that lined the walkways. After a coffee to warm up I took the ferry back to Helsinki and had a late lunch at the Central Market. Fresh salmon sandwiches with a glass of chilled white wine never disappoint.
Even though I’m not especially religious I wanted to visit two religious-y places while in Helsinki so I walked over to the Temppeliaukio (rock church). I’d seen pictures of this church which is built into a rock wall and has a copper dome roof and a skylight that lets in natural light. Architecturally it’s a really cool building, and has a sense of peacefulness inside it once you get past the clicks of all the people taking pictures. The second place I wanted to visit was Kamppi Chapel- a chapel built for the sole purpose of silence in the middle of a busy shopping area. The building itself is iconic- it’s a very modern design and the inner sanctuary is curved and built to block out the outside noise. Of course interspersed between doing some sightseeing and walking in the brisk autumn air I was eating good food and drinking delicious wine. My first night there I had an amazing meal of fettuccine with prawns in a lobster butter sauce. So damn good. The next night I ate at a different Italian restaurant that had a mozzarella bar. Mozzarella cheese soaked in a bunch of different sauces or oil. Not very healthy but totally tasty.
So that’s a quick 36 hours in Helsinki. Next blog post I’ll tell you about one of my new favourite cities: Tallinn Estonia. I’m currently writing this sitting on the couch of my bestfriend’s house in Seattle while she is baking some sweets for Thanksgiving. Next weekend I’ll be flying back to Saudi where I’ll be thru the Christmas holidays. No white Christmas for me. Happy Thanksgiving to my Yankee peeps!
A year ago today is a day that will be implanted in my memories forever. For two reasons…..first it’s my Pops birthday, and secondly because a year ago today we finished our Camino. If you’ve been reading my blog then you know last year I walked almost the entire length of Spain with my Pops. We started our pilgrimage in St Jean Pied de Port and walked over the Pyrenees walking to Santiago de Compostela about 100km from the Atlantic Ocean. I had purposely planned for us to arrive into Santiago on the 29th of October so we would be issued our Camino certificates on Pops birthday. And so that’s exactly what we did.
The night before we stayed in a town called Lovacolla on the outskirts of the Santiago airport about 11km to the Santiago Cathedral. We woke up early as we had plans to arrive in Santiago by mid morning. The Camino had other plans for us though. We left before the sun was up and started out in the pitch black of the early morning hours. This was pretty much the only time we got lost on the Camino and we spend the better part of an hour scouting out the famous yellow arrows we’d spend the last five weeks following. With our headlamps on we just couldn’t make sense of where we had lost the trail and we back tracked and wandered around trying to get our bearings. I have a way over active imagination so being in the woods in the dark is the setting for a horror movie I wanted no part of. We eventually ended up coming across a yellow arrow and were finally on our way.
We made it into Santiago a little before 12pm and went directly to get our Camino credential and to store our bags. On the way to the pilgrims mass we ended up running into 2 older Japanese/American ladies who we had crossed paths with several times and made plans to meet up later. Somehow we confused the Museum for the Cathedral and attempted to go to mass there- the employee thought this was hilarious. We finally got ourselves sorted and took in the traditional pilgrims mass and then in honour of Pops birthday I had booked us for lunch at Casa Marcelo, a Michelin starred restaurant. It was the bomb. Seriously such a great meal. After several glasses of wine we day drunkenly made our way back to pick up our bags and head to the hotel. En route we ran into an Australian guy we had meet a couple weeks before. I refer to him as Dr Bob. While not a doctor he gave me blister advice and helped Pops with his shin splints so he will always be affectionately known as Dr Bob to me. He and Pops shared the same birthday so we made plans to meet up a couple hours later at the cathedral.
At 5pm we wandered to the Cathedral and met up with Dr Bob who had 3 plastic cups and a bottle of red wine and we sat on the cold stone out front catching up and watching other pilgrims arrive. Within very little time we were reunited with several pilgrims we knew- some Americans, a fellow Canadian, another Australian, a girl from the Netherlands, and Swiss guy. We took a ton of pictures in front of the Cathedral and wandered off to find something to eat as a group. A few of us later went for dinner and then out to this bizarre bar with a live jazz band where one of the dudes was very clearly on some type of drugs, but nonetheless an amazing musician. We drank beer and listened to the band play and Pops had a very special day.
For obvious reasons this will always be a day that stands out in my memories of our time on the Camino. There was a huge sense of accomplishment, but also of sadness that the Camino was over. That we had walked nearly 700km over 5 weeks, and that the walk was over. A few days later we would leave Spain and return to Paris. As I’ve mentioned before not a single day has passed in the last year that I haven’t longed to be back on the Camino, the sun coming up, the wind gently blowing, and my feet carrying me across nearly an entire country. So for now I’ll just rely on my memories until I walk again.
And a very Happy Birthday to Pops who I’ll be seeing next week. Can’t wait!!!