Howdy!! I'm Kristine. I'm a nurse in my 30's who's spent most of my career on the move exploring North America and traveling the world. So I'm now heading back to the Middle East. I've taken a job back in Saudi and will be blogging about my experiences there, my upcoming trips and the many random thoughts I have!
A couple weekends ago I joined a tour with a group of friends to go to Taif in Saudi Arabia. Taif is an easy 1hr direct flight from Riyadh to the southwest. It’s about 90km to Mecca just to put it into geographic context. Taif is located in the mountains of the Mecca province and was previously used as a summer capital for the Royals due to cooler temperatures. It is also famous for its Rose Festival which was the main reason we visited.
The Rose Festival takes place every year from mid March till the end of April. These Damask roses were originally brought to Saudi Arabia by the Ottomans in the 16th century. The climate and fertile soil of this region make it the prefect place to grow roses, but they also produce some of the country’s best honey, grapes, and pomegranate. The roses are hand picked in the early morning as they start to bloom as that’s when they have the most oil. If they are collected too late the oil evaporates and that’s a loss of profit. After they’re collected the rose petals (around 12000-18000 petals) are poured into large copper pots and a super-secret amount of distilled rose water is added and the pot is covered and sealed. Then it’s heated to a temperature specific to each distillery. Kinda like following a recipe. It then drains into large glass containers and the oil collects on top of the water. If a distiller is lucky 18000 petals will produce about 10ml of rose oil (called 1 tawlah.)
The price of the rose oil is based off the weight of 1000 petals and it changes from year to year. Last year it was 60 riyals (16 USD). This year it is 45 riyals (12 USD) as there are more farms which as per economics drives down the price. Taif rose oil has been used in perfumes by Lancome, Givenchy, and Bvlgari to name a few. While in Taif you will have the opportunity to buy a variety of rose products to take home. Rose oil. Rose lotions. Rose water. You get the idea.
Our group tour was not only to visit the roses, but also the see the area. Our tour guide Khalid organized a jam-packed itinerary so we could maximize our time. If you want to visit Taif I would highly recommend booking a tour with him. He was professional and super knowledgeable and I’d book him again. Our tour started on Thursday night and we were greeted at the airport and taken for a late dinner of mezze (mixed salads) and grilled meat before crawling into bed for an early morning start.
Friday morning we had a quick breakfast and headed off towards the Al Hada mountains. The road passes by many amusement parks with what looks like day rental cabins. Taif is a summer tourist destination for Saudi Arabians looking to beat the scorching heat of most of the country. These amusement parks looked kinda apocalyptic as they are dated (think 1980’s) and weren’t open so were empty when we were there. We stopped at a roadside fruit market to sample and buy some of the regions best fruit and then Khalid surprised us with a scenic viewpoint. From that elevation you are able to see the winding Alkurr road below. Just looking at it made me car sick. Besides roses the Taif area is known for …….red-butted baboons. Run for your lives!!! Just kidding, but baboons and monkey’s make me nervous as hell so needless to say there was a lot of screaming while other tourists fed them. On a clear day it is possible to see the clock tower in Mecca in the distance. Sadly, the day was hazy and we couldn’t see it but that would’ve been hella cool.
We then visited the first of two rose distilleries and got to sample the local Taif bread. Taif bread is made from 7 different types of flour. Being domestically challenged I wasn’t aware that there were more flour options than white or brown. Who knew?! It’s quite a dense bread and paired very well with local honey and rose tea. After an informative explanation of the rose distillery process we had the option of being showered with rose petals. Hellloooooo Instagram. When opportunity comes a knocking I happily accept.
From here we visited the regional Al-Shareef museum which has a great display of old historical artifacts such as traditional tea and coffee pots. Clothing and textiles of the region and how meals of the past were prepared and stored. The museum also gives you a feel for what traditional Taif buildings looked like. We then visited Alarfa Fortress which is about 200 years old. On some of the rocks outside of the fort are petroglyphs (rock carvings) of cows, dogs and gazelles. They are said to be 3000 years old. We also visited the nearby camel market and learned some introductory information about camels. The male camels are rather frisky and are kept tied up outside separate from the pens containing the female and baby camels. The males are also separated from each other as they will fight to the death. It was baby camel season so we got to see the babies up close.
Then it was lunch and nap time before heading out for the evening activities. Just before sunset we headed back towards Al Hada to ride the cable car. This ended up being one of the highlights of the weekend trip. The cable car descends into a valley to the tourist village of Al Kar. The ride is about 20min and if you are scared of heights you will probably scream both on the outside and inside as I did. But the views are amazing as is the village at the bottom. Our visit was timed perfectly with the setting sun which added to the magic. There is a water park complete with water slides at the bottom, and the tourist village has great outdoor space with coffee shops and restaurants. The best part was that they had one of those “Alpine-coasters” which are a cross between a roller coaster and a luge minus the snow. Basically you are in separate sleds that are propelled up a hill by a motor and then at the top you are released and you come down the mountain however fast you choose. Both fun and terrifying at the same time! We then took the cable car back up the mountain and headed off to a private camp where we relaxed for the rest of the evening which is a very traditionally Saudi thing to do.
The next morning we headed off early again. This time we headed towards the Al Shafa mountains. We stopped off at another scenic overlook that doubled as baboon feeding ground. Their faces and red bums are equally terrifying, but the view was spectacular. My selfies were on fire. Also if riding things is your thang there were camels and donkeys all colourfully decorated. It was then souvenir shopping time and we visited a different rose distillery. The group let the riyals fly as we bought a wide variety of rose products. We then drove to Taif central market. We explored the honey and gold market and then visited the newly opened artist cooperative where local artist showcase their creative works. Before making a quick dart to the airport we stopped off for lunch for what several people referred to as “the best chicken of my life.” We had Yemeni Mandi chicken which is a style of cooking chicken where it is seasoned with special spices and then cooked in an underground pit. It’s served on a plate of saffron rice and it’s moist and delicious. I would definitely eat Mandi chicken again.
So that wraps up my weekend adventures in Taif. If roses don’t really interest you there’s still a ton to see and it has a very different feel than Riyadh. And if I don’t convey it I would very much recommend having Khalid organize a tour for you!
Ok so lets talk about solo female travel for a bit. I wrote this post back in January while on a solo trip to Istanbul and it’s a bit of a vent about my experience while traveling there as a solo female. If you’ve read my blog before you know I’m a pretty seasoned traveler. I’ve been to 77 countries now and at least 30 of those have been on my own. I’ve lived in Saudi Arabia off and on for over 5 years, and I’m pretty comfortable with being in cultures other than my own.
Anyways, I was in Turkey back in 2011 and the one major memory from that trip was how aggressive the men were. Like following you down the street, bombarding you with questions. Not as aggressive as Morocco was. In Turkey no man ever actually put his hands on me, but they were pretty annoying none the less. You’re probably reading this thinking, hang on, someone in Morocco put their hands on you? Yes. More than once. I couldn’t wait to leave. I figured this time Turkey would be different. I mean I’m 40 for god sakes. Surely past the age limit of trying to be picked up on the street. Boy was I wrong.
Now some women who read this will be saying to themselves- hey I traveled to Turkey and Morocco and had zero issues. And to you lucky ladies I say “good on ya.” Living in Saudi Arabia I’m used to not blending in. I mean blonde hair stands out. Same goes for India, all of Asia and the Middle East. One time in Syria I thought I was kinda fooling people because I kept getting asked if I was Russian which I thought was kinda cool until I learned that was code for “working girl”. The most surprising place I blended in though was Ukraine. People kept asking me if I was a local which I took as a compliment because everyone knows Ukrainian women are hella hot.
Whoah. Totally off track. I wrote this while sipping wine by the fire in Cappadocia watching the sunset so you can see how I could easily become distracted. So I arrived in Istanbul fairly uneventfully. I checked into my hotel and made a brisk walk over to the Hagia Sophia because I’m told it closed at 1700. It was like 1610. I got to the entrance and the gate is shut but there’s this helpful chap leaning against the gate who tells me it will open again in the morning at 9am. I stupidly assume he worked there. He asks where I’m from. I’m like Canada. He’s like where are you going now. And the light bulb flashes on in my head. I’m like oh just over to the Blue Mosque. And he’s all, but let me show you something over here and points across the street. And then he gets more insistent saying just 2min 2min. I’m like no. Thank you and I walk the opposite way.
So off to the Blue Mosque I go. Over the next 15min this scenario will repeat itself a couple more times. Hello. Where you from? What’s your name? How long you stay in Istanbul? Now mind you my body language and very active resting bitch face are giving off I’m quite certain zero signs that I’m wanting to be approached. How about I don’t want to tell you my name. Or what country I’m from. Or how long I’m staying because newsflash I don’t want to be talking to you. It’s all so annoying and ruined what should have been a pleasant afternoon.
So later that night I’m walking to a restaurant that the hotel recommended. And I accidentally miss the street. No biggie, it’s all very close to my hotel. As I’m turning around I walk past this dimly lit area where some men are sitting outside. I keep walking. Suddenly I hear…where in Canada are you from? Now I’m not wearing anything that would identify me as a Canadian. And people always just assume I’m American. So I turn back and it’s the same dude from outside the gate of the Hagia Sophia. And so I say near to Vancouver and turn to walk away and he’s like of I’ve been to so and so. And I’m like cool. And he’s like where are you going. And I’m like for dinner. And he’s like meet me for a drink after. And I’m like I can’t. And he’s like why not. And now I’m getting irritated. Because I just really want to say fuck off guy. (Sorry Pops but swear words get my point across better.) So I say because my boyfriend wouldn’t like it. To which he says well he’s not here is he. And so I just meekily say no and walk briskly away.
And then I get pissed. Because I’m so sick of taking this type of shit. As women we are taught to be polite otherwise you’ll be labeled a bitch. And men put us in this position. Like my body language is telling you I’m not interested. And I’m trying to walk away as you talk. So it’s kinda a no-brainer that I’m not down for this convo. And yet they persist. If I want to talk to you, you’ll know. Like I’d maybe make eye contact. Or look in your general direction. I’m a solo traveler so I pretty much know what I want to see and when I want to see it. I do not require random dude on the street’s opinion. And if I do I’ll ask. Sorry for this long vent but it’s annoying as fuck. And after several incidents like that it just made me want to hide in my hotel as opposed to being followed or chatted up by random dudes.
To be fair it’s not only Middle Eastern countries that this happens in. There was the time a friend and I were followed back to our hotel in Barcelona. Or the time in Cyprus where a Nigerian guy tried to follow us home and we quite literally had to run (like actually run) away from him while yelling at him to try and shame him into not following. I’ve had numerous incidents over the years while traveling where men have blocked my way. Often it’s to try and chat or show me something in their store. Either way it’s not ok. Then there is the grabbing that happens. And this has happened to me both in North America and while traveling. Sometimes it has been my wrist being grabbed onto to try and pull me into a store. Other times it’s more sexual in nature. A hand on my ass. A leg rubbing closer or against mine on a plane or train. Sometimes the acts cause me to take a pause as if to ask myself “that can’t really just have happened.” And yet they did. And because I’m a women they will likely happen again.
And I’m kind of at a loss for how to deal with it. Never travel again? Not an option. No more solo travel. Also not an option. I already take what I think are a number of necessary but saddening precautions. I carry a whistle on my key chain. I travel with a door stopper that I will put under my door in a hotel or hostel if it’s feeling at all dodgy. I have perfected the unwelcoming resting bitch face. If I’m in a crowded place sometimes I will put my headphones in to act as a deterrent to random dudes coming up for a chat. Oddly, this did not work at all in Istanbul and they would still come up. Sometimes I will just hold my phone up and pretend to have a conversation to lessen the chances of having unwanted interactions. I think what’s going to have to happen is that I’m just going to have to be ok with being labeled a bitch. As women we are socialized to be polite even with unwanted attention. And if we aren’t polite and thankful that some random stranger has just tried to chat, or asked us out, or said something sexual to us we are often met with being called the dreaded “B” word.
So that’s the vent. I debated whether to post it but I think it’s important to show that travel isn’t just about getting the right shot for instagram. And in no way do I regret solo travel as a woman nor do I think that women shouldn’t travel on their own because for me it has been hugely empowering. I’m also in no way saying not to travel to Morocco or Turkey. Those were just my experiences as a western looking woman. I just wanted to bring to light issues that female travelers face.
Well it’s that time of the year again. The end of the old year and the beginning of the new one. I love looking back at where I was and forward to where I want to go. 2018 was jam packed full of travel. In fact I was out of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for a total of 103 days. I did A LOT of solo travel. I visited 19 countries this year, with 11 of those being new to me, and 12 of them solo. I traveled quite a bit to Europe and saw the remaining Eastern European countries I’d yet visited, and spend a bit of time in my native country of Canada.
2018 seemed really busy to me and my blogging kinda fell to the wayside. I’ve got a great group of friends and my social calendar was pretty full. Then at the end of the summer I met a boy…..and that’s consumed even more of my time, but in a good way. But enough about that. Lets talk about the top places I traveled….
1. Luxor, Egypt
In January I flew to Luxor Egypt via Cairo, with 3 girlfriends for a quick weekend away, to check off a bucket list item for me. I’m not really a “bucket list” person, but hot air ballooning over the Valley of the Kings was definitely on it. We took a sunset sail down the Nile, visited the temples of Karnak, Luxor, Hatshepsut, and Medinet Habu. We walked the Valley of the Kings. Our local guide convinced a rickshaw driver to let me drive his rickshaw. That’s always a highlight for me (and a reoccurring theme of this years travels.)
Luxor was amazing. It felt completely surreal to wander amongst so much history. The temple of Luxor was even more stunning and eerie at night and I’d highly recommend it. The best part of that weekend though was the hot air ballooning. We were under prepared for how cold Egypt was in the early morning hours in January so the four of us “borrowed” our white hotel robes to keep warm. Many thanks to the Hilton for keeping us warm. We must’ve looked like a confusing sight to the locals, but a few of them gave us thumbs up so they obviously appreciated our ingenuity. Anyways, if you go to Luxor make sure to go hot air ballooning. It is magical as the sun is coming up. You have views over the Nile River to one side and the temples of the Valley of the Kings to the other. It was peaceful and awe inspiring and amazing.
In February my Kiwi sidekick and I set out on operation “Shake our Booty in Djibouti.” If you follow my blog at all then you know the trip was a complete success. Djibouti is a country that is off the beaten path, and yet up and coming. For such a small country there is a surprising number of things to see and adventures to have. This was the scene of the 2018 tire mishap, where Kiwi and I ended up in a vehicle which suddenly had only 3 tires on it on an old air tarmac quite literally in the middle of no where. We spend a night camping in the desert and dancing with the locals. At some point I was handed an old wild west style wooden hunting rifle and instructed to dance with said rifle. And dance I did. Harder and faster than ever before, and that was pretty close to being the best travel memory of the year. I also was fortunate enough to drive a rickshaw on Africa’s busiest highway. I loved every minute of it, no body died, and the rickshaw wallah even asked me to join him in a joint business venture. Sadly, I had to decline.
This trip was also a great reminder in the fact that you can make plans and then life just happens. Our flight from Djibouti to Dubai was canceled and we had to scramble to change our plans, which basically meant a bunch of frustrating emails with FlyDubai over their lack of assistance, and us checking back into the hotel we had just checked out of for a pool day. To be fair the hotel was full of military contractors so there was a ton of eye candy at the pool so it felt like a reward in a lot of ways. But it did mean we had to shorten our time in Dubai to only one night. Thankfully though, the Westin took pity on us and upgraded us to our own suite with a massive private balcony. So great!!
3. Farasan Islands, Saudi Arabia
In March I took a weekend trip to the coast of Saudi Arabia. Down near to the border of Yemen about a 90min ferry ride from the port city of Jizan is these chain of islands. To stay they are stunning is a huge understatement. The water is that shade of blue that typically makes you think of the Caribbean. The sandy beaches are secluded and largely devoid of other tourists. It is a snorkeler or diver’s paradise. We spend the weekend on an all day boat tour exploring the beaches and swimming or snorkeling while dining on fresh fish. On the way back our boat broke down and it took some time to get the engine restarted and then we had to battle huge waves that kept splashing over the side of the boat. It was all very exciting and very, very cold as the sun set.
The next day we explored the main island and visited the town of Fursan to see some old merchant houses that have ornate stonework. We visited an old Ottoman Fort from the 18th century and a restored historical village. And we took soooo many pictures. The entire weekend was just perfect, and I had to keep reminding myself that we were still in Saudi Arabia. That these amazingly colourful views were in fact Saudi. Because, lets be honest, these are not the views you would ever associate with this country! If you live in Saudi make sure to visit the Farasan Islands.
In April I did a three week solo trip to Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, and Greece. To be quite honest, I had a really great time in each country, and I found Belgrade, Serbia to be a wonderful place to pass a few days. The city itself is very walkable and full of large urban art installations (graffiti) of which I’m a huge fan. Skopje, Macedonia was a whimsical place which has a dizzying assortment of statues. Most of them weird and confusing, but made it interesting to wander the streets because you didn’t know what odd statue was just around the bend. Statue to breastfeeding women. Check. Statue of a fish. Check. So many horse statues. The countryside of Albania was green and beautiful. One of my favourite sunsets of 2018 was captured in a square in Tirana. But lets talk more about Kosovo…
Kosovo is still pretty off the beaten path. The history in this entire region is complicated to say the least. Kosovo is the youngest country in Europe having declared independence in 2010- some countries recognize it and some countries don’t. There are 4 Christian Orthodox churches/monasteries in Kosovo that are on the UNESCO list. I hired a local guide for a day and we drove the Kosovo countryside while discussing the history of the region and taking in the scenery. The countryside reminded me a lot of driving in parts of Canada, as it was green with snow capped mountains. My favourite part of this trip though was the sweet man I met on the bus from Belgrade to Pristina who went by the name of “Galle.” He read his newspaper to me, and we shared snacks and he told me stories of his time as a pilot in the Yugoslav Army. Random unexpected meetings with kind strangers is one of my favourite things about traveling. When you start off as people from different backgrounds and countries but part as friends.
5. Santorini, Greece
The tail end of my trip to Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania ended with a few days in Athens and then 4 nights on what I coined my “Solomoon.” This basically consisted of me booking myself into a beautiful villa with a private hot tub and drinking absurd amounts of wine. I figured that since I was 39 and yet to have a Honeymoon it was time to take myself on one. I don’t meant this to sound bitter, because I wasn’t bitter while I was there. And it’s not meant to sound pathetic either. It was mostly meant to be empowering from the mindset that I wasn’t going to not treat myself to experiences in romantic places just because I’m not in a relationship. And so I didn’t. I treated myself to fancy dinners, watched the sunset from my hot tub, wandered the island aimlessly, and ate a ton of orange gelato. I read books and took naps and tried to make some big life decisions. It was lovely. I think every single lady should take themselves on a “Solomoon.” That sounded a bit sexist, but I think for those of us older and single it’s really important. And really life is too short, so just take that damn trip to a romantic hot spot.
In August I spend some time on a solo trip through Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova. Ukraine was a pretty significant trip for me. For once I’d done some research before going- specifically about the 2014 revolution. If Ukraine is on your travel list I would highly recommend watching the Netflix documentary called “Winter on Fire.” It is intense and I found it really emotional to walk around the city center with scenes from the documentary playing in the back of my head. Many of the protesters killed were young students and there are several memorials throughout the city center.
One of my most random travel memories happened in Kiev when I showed up planning to do a free walking tour of the city, but the guide never turned up. The other travelers that were also at the meeting point banded together and we formed an impromptu tour of our own. We were an international expat conglomerate from Kazakhstan, Australia, Slovenia, the UK, Portugal, the Philippines and Sri Lanka- some living in their home countries and the some residing in India, Germany, Qatar and me in Saudi Arabia. We jumped on the metro and visited some of the major tourist sites, snapping group photos and chatting about our shared love of travel. It was a really memorable afternoon, and one I won’t soon forget.
The other great thing I did in Ukraine was visit the site of Chernobyl. As much as I hate the word it was a “bucket list” item for me. I’ve long been a lover of eerie abandoned places and I really wanted to photograph the area. I joined onto a day tour and was able to explore the safe areas and take photos to my hearts desire.
First off…. I’m the worst. I’ve been getting emails from many of my readers asking where I’ve been since I haven’t blogged in several months. I’m still here- I’ve just been really, really busy. Life kinda got away from me, but fingers crossed in the New Year I’ll get some better balance. So what have I been so busy with you’re probably wondering?! Well let me tell you….
I’ve been traveling- like kinda a lot. I’m in the midst of writing my Top 10 from 2018 review so I’ll tell you in more detail then, but earlier this month I visited my 75th and 76th countries. Not that it’s a competition (because it’s not) but the OCD part of my brain likes to keep track of these things, hence the counting. I spent a lot of this year in Eastern Europe to some less traveled places like Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, Greece, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova. I spent three weeks in October walking the Camino Portuguese from Porto, Portugal to Santiago de Compostella in Spain with my Pops. It was a shorter tribute to our walk on the Camino Frances two years ago. It was an easier, less social walk but with stunning scenery. I’ve been doing a lot of solo traveling as of late, which I am a huge fan. I’ve got one more trip coming up next week to end the year. I’m going to Milan, Italy with my new beau for my 40th. Yes I said new beau. And yes I’m turning 40. Ugh. Sayonara to my 30’s. I hope my 40’s are full of just as many adventures!!
Back in June women in Saudi Arabia were allowed to drive. Naturally, I was late to the party (mostly because of the massive backlog related to driver’s license appointments) but better late than never I got my license this fall. Have I driven yet? Sadly no. But I’m dying to plan an all girls road trip sometime soon.
I’ve had a pretty busy social life as of late (truth be told my social life has always been pretty full). For years Pops has been offering me unwanted advice on how to get more rest with no success. Fall and winter in Saudi is when the weather is perfect and there’s quite a lot of formal embassy things going on. I’ve been to a few art exhibits. Yes. Saudi has an art scene. Who knew?! It’s pretty cool and I’m keen to go to more things. And I’ve been checking out some new restaurants and food trucks which are really popular in Riyadh right now!
I’ve also been working on a kinda big writing thing that I’ll tell you about when it actually publishes. Basically, I was approached by a HUGE travel website to write a paid thing for them and at first I totally thought it was a Nigerian prince scam, but it turns out it wasn’t which was really cool. Details to come about that….
For my Saudi peeps- Janadriyah Festival is starting this week. Normally it’s in February, but this year it’s running from December 20th to January 9th. December 20-24th are male only days and then the festival will be open to ladies and families. It’s one of my most favourite things to do here and I look forward to it every year. I read online that it will be open from 11am to 11pm, but previous years I’d tried to go in the early afternoon during the week and it wasn’t open, so I’d say go late afternoon. Parking is always a hot mess, so take that into consideration. Personally, I think it’s much easier to have a driver or taxi/uber drop you off.
So that’s it really. I’m still alive. I’m still in Saudi Arabia. I’m planning to stay another year. One day I hope to get caught up on telling you about my travels. In the mean time it seems I’m much better at posting to my Facebook page or Instagram so you can follow along there if you like. Happy travels, and a very merry holiday season!!
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.
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.