Siena and Venice, Italy

When I was traveling this summer and anticipating blog posts I thought our two days in Siena wouldn't net me enough material so I had planned to only blog about Venice. However, I was wrong. I could have stayed in Siena for a week and been able to blog about something different every day. This medieval town, about an hour out of Florence, had been on my radar since I named my one of my daughters Sienna.

Siena is divided into seventeen contrade or districts and you can tell which area you're in because the street lamps change. Only July 2 they have an annual horse race between ten of the seventeen districts. If you saw the track, which is around the main square, you'd understand why only ten horses can race at one time and even that seems too many to me. Winning this race is a matter of great pride and the district where we stayed had just won. They were going to party for six weeks.

Here's a photo of a parade we stumbled upon. And the gathering in the Piazza del Campo when they decided who was going to participate in the next race.

Our first night, there was a celebration in the main square with a band playing and general merriment. Sitting on the warm, sun-baked tiles with the stars blazing above, music wafting over the sultry night air, surrounded by my family, will be an enduring memory of my time in Italy. If you have the chance, visit Siena, especially if you can coincide your visit to early July.

The next stop on our itinerary was Venice. I had been here years before but with my brother (so not romantic). I do like Venice but have found it's the kind of place you visit once and you're done. The main tourist attractions like the Rialto Bridge or St. Mark's Square are overcrowded and after five minutes I'd had enough of people jostling for the best photo. My oldest daughter and I got up at 6:00 am to get some photos before the crowds hit and that was worth it. It's also not a city for the less-mobile. With tons of stairs and bridges you'll soon rack up the mileage on your step counter. One of my favorite things to do in Venice, however, is to wander around the back alleys and tiny streets and canals. This is where you'll find the real Venice.

If you're going to do a little shopping, compare prices. It seems every store carries almost the same thing but those that are farther away from the main squares and tourist attractions are a few Euros cheaper. Although I only saw these snazzy pair of underpants in one store.

Venice was our last overnight stay in Italy before we headed to France. First of December I'll be recounting our adventures in French rail travel. Hope to see you then.

Ciao!

Rome, Italy - Take 2

Umm, for any who checked back on Oct 15 for my Rome post, sorry! I was so deep in the editing cave that I completely missed prepping the mid-month blog post. The good news, however is that I will have a new release before year's end. And it takes place in Italy, the island of Sicily to be precise, so stay tuned for content and contests as the book gets closer to release.

However until then, as promised, we're heading to the Eternal City, Rome, which was the fifth stop in my recent European Adventure. As they say, all roads lead to Rome, or at least a train from the ferry which docked in Civitavecchia. This was the second time I'd visited the Italian capital, although the first with my husband and children. Our adventure began in taking a taxi from the train station to our accommodation. We're a big family ... Rome's taxis are not. We'd finally settled on taking two taxis until one driver saw it as a personal challenge to get all of us plus our bags into his car. With my husband up front and the rest of us piled in the backseat we set off on what can only be described as a rally race with no rules. I'm not sure my eldest has managed to get her butt cheeks to unclench yet.

Having survived the taxi ride, the next morning we set off to explore. You know how they say the Roman empire built long, straight roads that were an engineering marvel of their time? Yeah, they didn't apply that to their home city. Plus, it was blinking hot. By the time we'd decided that the lines to get into the Colosseum were too long, then walked to Trevi fountain and the Spanish steps, we'd practically melted.

A gelato and a lukewarm drink at a small cafe temporarily restored our ability to function and we were about to take the metro back to our home-from-home and head out again when it was cooler. Except the metro was on strike. So forty-five long minutes later we dragged ourselves into the apartment and became puddles on the cool, marble flooring.

Dinner that night, however, made up for the day's discomforts. Just around the corner was a little family-run restaurant serving the best seafood cannelloni I've ever eaten. Sorry, no photos, I couldn't put my fork down long enough to snap a shot. The next morning we got up early and headed to the Colosseum before the lines got too long. Children under 18 get free entry so that was a bonus.

An amusing thing happened on our way to dinner our second night. My twelve-year-old had selected the restaurant and was directing us there. While making sure we were on the right street, a kind lady asked if she could help. After confirming that we were where we were meant to be, she asked if we were going for dinner. We said yes and then walked to the restaurant at the end of the road. When we went in, the owner asked us to wait for five minutes while they rearranged some of the tables. As the place was tiny we stepped back outside. Well, the lady who had helped us with directions obviously thought that wasn't good enough. She went into the restaurant and a second later came out and said they would take us now and look after us like family. We had a great meal and I tried saltimbocca as the English description said it was a "typical Roman meal." It was fantastic. As was the limoncello that brought an end to all my meals in Italy.

It's a shame though, that Rome was so dirty. There was garbage everywhere and rarely a building or sign not tagged with graffiti. And even for me, it was just too hot to wander. But around every corner was a glimpse into the pat that my active imagination filled with a thousand stories. Rome is an amazing city for the romantic.

Next, we headed to Tuscany. Join me in the middle of the month (hopefully I'll remember) when I'll regale you with stories of one of the quirkiest places I've ever visited. Ciao!

 

Barcelona, Spain

Yeah, I'm still harping on about my recent trip to Europe. Today we're heading back to Barcelona. Ed Sheeran sang about it, it's long been a city renowned for it's diverse architecture--heck they've been building a church for over 130 years--and it was the last place I visited in Spain. Ah, Barcelona. With its sandy Mediterranean beaches, chic shops and suave, sophisticated style, it's a city that can hold its own on the world's stage. It's also become a major destination for Brits and I heard more English spoken on the streets than Spanish.

Barcelona has a lot to offer travelers, from simple amusements such as strolling Las Ramblas, or checking out the street artists in Ciutadella Park, or admiring men who take their fitness routines very, very seriously. 

Wide, tree-lined boulevards were equally numbered with twisty, narrow alleyways filled with tiny boutiques and, of course, the usual souvenir shops. If you're into cats then these shoes may be just what you're looking for.

My quest for the ultimate sangria also hit a high with one made of cava, the sparkling Spanish wine. Sorry, it was quaffed down before I could take a photo. I also had a real, proper tapas meal, although we ended up having to order a hamburger for my picky eater child. The deep fried artichoke hearts, mushroom medley, and fall-off-the-bone lamb chops were amazing.

Unfortunately, Barcelona also marked the time to say goodbye to Spain and we hopped aboard a ferry (the cheap version of a Mediterranean cruise) and sailed off to our next destination. See you back here on the 15th when I'll be talking about the Eternal City.

Until next time!

Granada, Spain

Another post harking back to my recent European vacation...

When planning this escape, there was one place in Europe I definitely wanted to see--the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. I've always been enchanted by Moorish architecture and design. From Madrid (see previous post) we travelled to Jerez in the south of Spain and stayed in a small hotel that was originally a Moorish house. Jerez is an old city, its founding going back centuries. It's also the center of sherry production and the reason I travelled here. But as rich as the fortified wine, the culture of the place intoxicated me as well.

Back to my dream destination - Granada is a city an hour inland from the Costa Tropical where we stayed in Almunecar. If I'd had more time, I'd love to have spent a day or two exploring this place. As it was, we had only several hours to visit the Alhambra, an ancient Moorish palace/fortress and gardens. And, a word of note for anyone planning to visit:book ahead. We weren't able to explore one part of the grounds as the allotment of tickets had already been sold out before our arrival. What we did manage to see, however, was stunning.

For the Moors, water was an important feature in their design and the Alhambra is teeming with examples: from fountains, streams that ran along the stairs, and water features that delight child and adult alike. Also common in the culture is the intricate carvings of the ceilings and borders at the top of the wall.

 

From the vantage point high above the city of Granada, I could see that many of the houses were of Moorish design with the rooms built around a central courtyard like our hotel in Jerez. There were also wide tree-lined boulevards and impressive tile designs.

Although this was only a brief one-day stop in our European Adventure, I was so glad we took the time to visit. Next time (and yes, dear husband, there will be a next time), we'll stay longer.

Next post we'll head north to Barcelona. Until then...happy reading.

Madrid, Spain

I'm back, at least in body. My spirit still wishes it were in Europe. So, to keep the holiday buzz going as long as possible, I will recap the posts that appeared on the Entangled in Romance blog under the Flight Risk Mom Friday banner. Some of the photos will be different, so if you've already read the posts, then at least check out the pictures. Here we go, Europe take 2:

I started my adventure in the capital of Spain. This is my first trip to this amazing city and I'm so glad I included it in my itinerary. My favourite place is Retiro Park where I wandered for over an hour enjoying the peace and tranquility in the middle of this vibrant city (well, as tranquil as it can be with four children). With a large pond, amazing buildings, and little hidden gems, I could have spent longer exploring every inch of this place.

No time to linger, however, it was off to the royal palace.

After lunch and siesta (after all, when in Spain...) we headed out into evening Madrid. The place was hopping and the street artists the best I've ever seen. We did a little pastry ogling and shoe shopping...

...then stopped for dinner--paella and sangria, of course.

The next day there was a street market near where we stayed so we wandered and bought some ripe, succulent apricots. I snapped a photo of this interesting pair of boxers. Two thoughts came to mind: first, if you have to advertise, it's probably not as big as you think; second, that's an odd place to store a banana.

Unfortunately, that's all we had time for in Madrid. Next we went to Jerez then to the Costa Tropical. Check back next post when I'll be talking about the one place I absolutely wanted to see on my European holiday. And I wasn't disappointed.

¡Hasta luego!

 

Taking a Break

You may, or may not, have noticed that I didn’t post on April 15. And as much as I’ve wracked my brain, I can’t come up with inspiration for today either. The well is dry and I need to replenish. I also have some family things and health issues stealing my concentration. So, this will be my last blog post until September 1, 2017. But when I return, I’ll have lots of new material so if you are subscribed, please hold on, I’ll be back.

Also, I’m going to turn off the commenting function on my blog as it’s just being used to spam me. Genuine fans can always contact me using the aptly titled “contact me” page on my website. If you can’t wait until September to hear from me and want to know what I’m up to, follow me on social media or sign up for my free newsletter. See you back here in September.

 

Seattle, Washington, USA

We’ll flit back up to the northern hemisphere and visit the nearby (at least to me) city of Seattle.  I visited there for a weekend a few weeks ago with my teenage daughter and two of her friends. Although Seattle is near (about a 3 hour drive) I haven’t visited the downtown city center for decades. And I was pleasantly surprised.

We stayed at a hotel near the Monorail/Space Needle. It was a nice place but unfortunately we were given a room by the reception desk and kitchen. Between loud guests coming in very late and very drunk (more likely high given Washington’s marijuana laws, be prepared to smell it everywhere) and the start of breakfast preparations at 5 am, I managed only about two or three hours of sleep. Next time I will insist on a room farther into the hotel.

The other slight niggle on our trip was the weather. I know, it’s Seattle, it’s going to rain. Unfortunately, being fashionable was more important than being dry for my girls. However, we were gifted with a glimpse of the sun on Saturday afternoon so the city was redeemed.

There is surprisingly a lot to do in the downtown core, especially if you have an interest in photography. Pike Place Market is a veritable cornucopia of interesting sights, sounds, textures and smells. And if I were a resident of Seattle I’d be down there every Saturday (not sure if they’re available every day or just on the weekend) to buy one of the amazing and very reasonably priced flower bouquets. I especially enjoyed seeing all the men carrying them around. Quaint little shops and eateries are everywhere as well as little vignettes over the harbor. It would be a great place to spend a day but be aware that at least on Saturdays the place is extremely crowded. As for the famous flying fish, you have to wait until someone buys one. I didn’t have that kind of patience, especially given the crowds.

There’s also the original Starbucks nearby if you worship at that church but again, be prepared to stand in a long line. And the more than slightly disgusting gum wall is an odd tourist attraction. It’s down a little alley, almost under Pike Place and is the kind of place that appeals to teenagers. If you’re beyond the age of 21 then I suggest giving it a miss. We had a fabulous dinner at a Mediterranean restaurant and then, one of the very best things about Seattle—you can buy alcohol at the grocery store. So while the teens were all updating their social media accounts and watching vloggers I was able to enjoy a nice glass of wine while wearing a pair of my $10 bargain high heels. All in all, a good weekend. Next time, though, I think I’ll take my husband and he can drive through Seattle’s notoriously bad traffic.

I have no idea where we’ll end up on April 15 so you’ll have to pop back then. Until mid-month, happy reading!

Santiago, Chile

We’re hanging a right from Tonga, heading across the south Pacific and landing in Chile today. I’ve always wanted to visit Chile and its capital, Santiago. Some say Chile is comparable to my home country of Canada—it has a similar standard of living and climate. It’s also nestled between the mountains and the sea, much like Vancouver (although it’s a couple hours’ drive in either direction for Santiago whereas they’re within minutes in Vancouver). I think that after the grand European adventure this year I may start planning a South American expedition.

As with many cities, the neighbourhoods of Santiago each have their own flavour. The Centro district has the museums, fabulous architecture and pedestrian malls. Other areas, notably Barrios Brazil, Lastarria and Bellavista are known for their nightlife with sidewalk cafés, restaurants, and beer halls. Whereas Providencia and Las Condes are home to upscale restaurants and world-class hotels.

If you’re a fan of Pablo Neruda, you may want to stop by La Chascona where he used to hang out with his mistress. These days it’s a museum, complete with ship’s cabin inspired dining room and lighthouse-themed living room. Unfortunately, many of the objects d’art and paintings were lost when the house was ransacked. It’s advised is to book ahead at least a day if you want to visit.

For me, I’d plan to spend time in one of the city’s many parks, especially Cerro San Cristobal. There are several “gardens” and sweeping views of the city and Andes mountains in the background. Funiculars can give you a lift from Plaza Caupolicán up the hill and to the various attractions within the park. Of course, one of my main reasons for visiting Chile would be to sample more of the wine. Santiago is ideally placed to enjoy the nearby vineyards.

There are hundreds of other things to do in Santiago—markets, museums, art galleries and cafés. Not to mention the country’s national library with high ceilings, stained-glass windows, antique furniture and, of course, books. Santiago is sure to keep me busy for several days.

Until next time then, adios!

photo credit: Marco Nürnberger Mountain Metropolis via photopin (license)

Tonga

It’s March 1st and there is still snow on my front lawn and more in the forecast. So I’m going to spend one more blog post in the South Pacific, visiting Tonga where the temperature today is 28C. However, before we jump on our virtual plane and head to this tiny Polynesian kingdom, can we take a tiny commercial break? My next book, Masquerading with the Billionaire comes out on March 13. After reading this post, be sure to pop over to the excerpt page to read the first chapter (and if you like it, preorder the book). If you’re in the United States, you can enter to win a print copy of the book here. And make sure you head back to my website on March 15 when I’ll be sharing links to all the contests and guests blog posts that will accompany the launch. Now, back to Tonga.

The sovereign state of Tonga consists of 176 islands, although only 36 of them are inhabited, spread over an area roughly the size of Texas. There are just over 100,000 Tongans and 70% of them live on the main island of Tongatapu. The country was formerly known as the Friendly Islands (I’m sure they’re still friendly, just not called that) due to the warm welcome that Captain James Cook received when he first visited. However, some claim that the chiefs wished to kill Captain Cook but couldn’t come up with an appropriate plan. Maybe not so friendly after all.

Tonga was a British protectorate from 1900 to 1970. In 2010 they moved toward a constitutional monarchy away from the former absolute kingdom. Tonga is the only Pacific nation to retain its monarchial government and has had an uninterrupted succession of rulers from the one family. Sounds like a great setting for an island princess story.

As soon as you arrive in Tonga, make sure you adjust your clocks to island time – where there’s nothing that can’t wait until tomorrow (although I believe medical science may argue this point). Also, there’s no need to take a Tongan cultural experience, just open your eyes. The locals are friendly and authentic. As you can imagine, with 176 (or 169 depending on which source you consult) islands, beaches and water sports are the most popular choices for tourists to while away the hours.  From what I’ve read, church-life is all pervasive so don’t plan anything for a Sunday which is the official Sabbath and according to the constitution is sacred forever.

If you have the means to make it off the main island of Tongatupu, head to ‘Eua, an island forty kilometers south. Geologically the oldest island in Tonga and one of the oldest in the Pacific, this place sounds definitely worth exploring. Cliff-top lookouts, hidden caves, a limestone arch, sinkholes and a jungle rainforest await the intrepid traveler.

Well, that’s about as much as I know about Tonga. Maybe I will write that island princess story and visit the country on a research trip. Who’s with me?

 photo credit: bigyahu Lovely lunch spot via photopin (license)

Fiji

Wow, I can’t believe I haven’t blogged about Fiji before this as I’ve actually been there. Of course it was a long, long time ago as part of my first round-the-world adventure. Unfortunately, money was limited so my adventuring was as well. So let’s see what’s to do if I went again with a little more cash.

First, some background. Fiji is located in the South Pacific approximately 2,000 kilometers northeast of New Zealand’s North Island. It’s an archipelago with more than 330 islands of which 110 are permanently inhabited. Despite the amount of inhabitable land 87% of the population live on the two main islands: Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. This means that the other islands are sparsely populated and so if you’re keen to get away from it all, they may be more what you’re looking for. Fiji has one of the most developed economies among South Pacific islands as it has not only tourism but sugar production and forest, mineral and fish resources. One other interesting point (at least to me) is that Fijian place names are not pronounced like they sound so consult a good travel guide before you tell a taxi driver where you want to go or you might end up somewhere else entirely.

So let’s see what’s to do aside from soak up the sun and read (because we already covered that in Bora Bora). First, I just want to say that the official Fijian tourism website (http://www.fiji.travel) is one of the best I’ve come across so definitely check it out. The two little girls on the home page make me want to pack my bag and head straight out. I read also on the Lonely Planet site that it’s the people of Fiji who make the islands specials. So take time to talk to the locals, it may be the best part of your trip.

Also not to be missed are the water sports. The reefs around Fiji’s islands have more than 1500 species of fish and sea creatures making them a spectacular display of underwater gorgeousness. If you prefer above-water adventure, then the Colo-i-Suva Forest Park in Suva (pronounced tholo-ee-soo-va) sounds like a great place to visit. If you want to get off the tourist track, then perhaps a visit to an authentic Fijian village may be of interest. It is customary to take a gift and request permission before using any of the swim holes or waterfalls. Navilawa village is set in an old volcanic crater surrounded by lush tropical forests and mountains. Check first before you set off as the region is prone to landslides and the route may be blocked.

Whatever you decide to do, you’re guaranteed a memorable holiday. Until then, see you back here next month.

 

Rarotonga

No, I haven’t started making places up for my blog. My friends recently told me that they got a great deal on a holiday there so I thought I’d check it out. As I used to live in New Zealand, the name did ring a few bells as it was once a Kiwi colony. Let’s discover this tiny Pacific island, the capital and most populous of the Cook Islands.

If you were to draw a line between Queensland, Australia and Bolivia in South America, the Cook Islands would be about halfway along that line. The Cook Islands are spread over an area roughly the size of India with a total population of approximately 15,000 – 10,000 of which live on the island of Rarotonga. So if overcrowding is getting you down, this or one of the outer islands may be the place for you.

Just looking at a few of the activities available on Rarotonga, I’ve already filled two nights. The first night, just to get a feel for the local culture, of course, I’d do the sunset cocktail hop by tuk tuk. The tour takes you to the best places for sipping on cocktails while watching the sun set over the reef. Sounds like the perfect introduction to island life. The next night, I’d take the ‘Fire on Water Night Paddling Tour of Rarotonga.’ Basically, you go at sunset on a paddle board or kayak and see the marine life at dusk. I believe there is also a fire dance performance which sounds cool, or I guess more accurately, hot.

If you want to see the fish but would rather not get wet, there is a glass-bottom lagoon cruise you can do however this tour comes with a warning – ukelele playing guides. If you’re not a fan of this instrument, you may want to find another option or pack headache tablets.

As in Tahiti and Bora Bora, there are also Jeep safaris you can take into the interior which is cloaked in dense vegetation. The difficult terrain and lack of infrastructure mean this part of the island has few inhabitants. The entire island is surrounded by a coral reef, although at the north of the island this is very close to shore but it the south it is farther away, making this the best area for watersports.

The island has been inhabited for centuries, in fact some say that the old road that runs around most of Rarotonga was first built 1200 years ago. The only ancient site that I could see mentioned was the marae called Arai-Te-Tonga where there is a stone-marked open air royal courtyard and other meeting grounds. You could pair this with visiting the Te Vara Nui cultural village where you can also enjoy a traditional umu buffet (food cooked in an earth oven) and an after-dark show.

Accommodation on the island varies from basic to luxurious so depending on your budget there are plenty of choices. I guess I’ll soon be looking for cheap flights to Rarotonga as well.

Until next time, keep calm and read on.

 photo credit: vjpaul Travel Rarotonga October 2016 via photopin (license)

Bora Bora

Today’s destination, Bora Bora is tied with Turks & Caicos as the number one place I’d like to go for a totally relaxing vacation. All I want to do is stay in one of those huts over the ocean and stare at the sea for an entire week. Okay, maybe eat seafood and have a cocktail or two. But that’s it. Aside from read books. There you go—eat, read, sip cocktails, stare at fishes. I’ll even forego my usual visit of historical sites. Mostly because there doesn’t seem to be any, aside from WWII munitions.

 

Like Tahiti, Bora Bora is technically part of France. It was an independent kingdom until 1888 when its last queen was forced to abdicate when the island became a French colony. In World War II the USA used the island as a supply base and set up fortifications at strategic points to protect it in case of attack, which thankfully never happened. Today, tourism is what supports the island and its approximately 8800 permanent inhabitants.

 

There are, as on Tahiti, 4-wheel-drive safaris you can take into the interior of the island and get some amazing panoramic views. When I was researching things to do on the island, I came across this sentence in the interior tour description: “The tour also stops at Matira beach and village of Vaitape, 2 unavoidable places to visit on Bora Bora main island.” I’m not sure “unavoidable” is the word they were looking for, perhaps “unmissable?”

 

But basically, aside from a day-trip to the interior and scuba diving or snorkeling, there’s not a lot to do except for, you guessed it: eat, read, sip cocktails, and stare at fishes. See why it’s my ideal place for a total relaxation vacation? No guilt when you lie around thinking you should be out sightseeing. Of course it would drive my husband crazy, unless there were a TV station showing non-stop football (soccer) games. He’s not much into the relaxing and reading scene. I may have to go without him.

 

So, with limited activities, where you stay is of prime importance. Hotels range from approximately $100 a night to $7,000, although to be fair, you get two bedrooms and a private pool for that price. I know which one my budget would demand. But maybe I could write about one of my billionaire heroes sweeping the heroine of his heart off to stay in one of the luxury ones and call it research.

 

With snow still on the ground and no hint of spring anytime soon in the forecast, if next month’s blog post is a little late, you’ll have to wait until I get back from Bora Bora. Until then, happy reading.

 

photo credit: ShutterRunner Overwater Bungalows via photopin (license)

Tahiti

Miss me? I took a month off blogging, my first in over four years (except for the time when I had to rebuild my website), to concentrate on a couple of other projects. Stand by for some hopefully awesome news in the next few months. And if you haven’t already, sign up for my newsletter as that’s where I’ll be telling people first.

Anyhow, it’s freezing cold here and there’s at least three feet of snow out my front door, so rather than continue our journey around Eastern Europe, let’s head somewhere warmer – Tahiti. It’s on my bucket list of places to visit and is looking mighty good right now when the weather here is below zero Celsius. First, some facts: Tahiti is the largest of 118 islands and atolls in French Polynesia and is roughly halfway between California and Australia. Technically part of France, the official language is French although Tahitian is widely spoken.

Only 45 kilometers at its widest point, it’s not a huge island, in fact it’s actually more like two volcanic islands, one slightly smaller than the other, connected by an isthmus. (I knew those geography lessons would come in handy one day.) Located near the equator, Tahiti has a year-round warm climate with more sun and less rainfall than Hawaii. The average daily temperature is 25C and the water temperature near the same. “Summer” months are November through April when it’s slightly warmer and more humid. “Winter” is May through October when it’s cooler but also drier.

I was first introduced to the island of Tahiti through the pages of Mutiny on the Bounty and the paintings by Paul Gaugin from his time on the island.  Since then, Tahiti and the surrounding islands have become a mecca for travelers seeking sun and relaxation. But, supposing you could drag yourself away from your bungalow over the ocean, what’s there to do?

The number one attraction is the market in Pape’ete. Covering an entire city block, this is where you shop for colorful sarongs, shell necklaces and woven hats. You can also get lunch here from the vendors, including Ma’a Tahiti, traditional Tahitian food. Or you could visit a couple of pearl museums, and one for Gaugin which may or may not be open (check before you head there), and a lagoonarium. The lagoonarium (what a great word) is reached through the Captain Bligh restaurant and is evidently free if you eat there first. It (the lagoonarium, not the restaurant) has an underwater viewing area where you can watch the fishes without getting your feet wet.

A visit to the botanical gardens would be on my to-do list although if you go, either take bug spray or my preferred mosquito repellant: someone they enjoy biting more than you. My top touristy thing to do, however, would be an all-day Jeep safari into the inner island—archeological sites, blowholes, waterfalls, and rainforest walks—sounds like an amazing day.

So there you have it – Tahiti. Next post we’ll pop over to Bora Bora, also on my bucket list. Until then, stay warm.

photo credit: TimoOK Infinity pool by the bar via photopin (license) 

Romania

Today we find ourselves in Romania. I will admit, I’ve always wanted to visit this country although I have been put off by some of the documentaries I’ve seen and stories I’ve read. But let’s leave that aside and see what there is to do in this country when visiting as a tourist.

First, some facts: located north of Bulgaria, south of Ukraine and Moldova, it’s eastern border is the Black Sea and Hungary and Serbia are nestled on its western edge. It is the largest country in southeastern Europe and the twelfth biggest in Europe. Almost half the land is covered by semi-natural ecosystems and Romania has one of the largest areas of undisturbed forest in Europe. And in the spirit of symmetrical aesthetics, the terrain is equally divided amongst hills, mountains and plains.

As with all the countries in this area, it’s been overrun by most every dominate kingdom of the era, so there are Saxon, Roman, Ottoman, etc. influences. But for most people, mention Romania and they immediately think of Transylvania and Dracula. Bran Castle is, obviously, a must-see tourist attraction. Evidently, the original castle was destroyed in a battle but subsequently rebuilt during the 14th-century “everyone needs a castle” craze. In addition to Bran Castle, there’s also Corvin Castle which you can wander around freely and let your imagination loose.

Peles Castle is a neo-Renaissance masterpiece started in 1875. Guided tours are compulsory and you have to pay extra to take photographs but evidently there’s lots to see. If you’re done with castles, there are plenty of museums. However, for me, I’d head to Maramureş, Romania’s most traditional area and stroll among the cobbled streets, gawk at the gothic wooden steeples on the churches (eight of which have UNESCO world heritage designations) and basically see what Romania was like one hundred years ago.

Of course if I had a supercar, I’d do like Top Gear and drive it under the People’s House also known as the Parliament Palace, the second largest administrative building in the world (after the Pentagon).  Or a could be a normal person and take the tour.

With almost fifty percent of the country semi-natural, there are lots of hikes, mountain bike tours, horseback riding, skiing, golfing, fishing… I don’t think you’ll be bored in Romania.

So what do you say, shall we give Romania a try?

photo credit: bortescristian Peles Castle via photopin (license)

Bulgaria

Wow, November kind of snuck up on me. Please accept my apologies for the lateness of this blog post. As we’ve been loitering around south-eastern Europe for a few months now, we might as well head a little further north to Bulgaria. Guess what, one of my daughters is named after its capital, Sofia.

Aside from an elegantly named capital, let’s see what else is interesting about this Black Sea-bordering country. I bet you haven’t heard many people say, “I’m off to Bulgaria on holiday.” Or, “Pick up a bottle of Bulgarian red wine while you’re out.” However, according to Lonely Planet, Bulgaria is a “mysterious, multi-layered country, with ski-fields as fantastic as its beaches.” Although I do wonder at the term ski field as I much prefer skiing on mountains rather than fields, but I guess it comes down to whatever floats your boat.

Bulgaria is also supposed to be a haven for hikers and mountain bikers. The country boasts seven mountain ranges, glacial lakes, and forests with bears, wolves, and lynxes but depending on your view of possibly being eaten, I’ll let you decide if this is a good thing or not. Some of the photos I’ve seen, however, are stunning so if the outdoors is your thing, definitely check out Bulgaria.

Given its geographic location, the country is also full of historical sites. From Neolithic settlements hidden in riverside caves, to Thracian tombs and Roman cities, Bulgaria has history for everyone. Plovdiv is Europe’s oldest continually inhabited city and will be a European Capital of Culture in 2019. It’s cobblestoned lanes and romantic old town is packed with museums, galleries and guesthouses located in colorful 19th-century mansions. If you fancy pretending you’re a medieval tsar, then head over to Veliko Târnovo. The site has more than 400 houses, 18 churches, the royal palace, and an execution rock. The original structures were destroyed in 1393 during a Turkish invasion but have been restored. Wander carefully, potholes, lose steps and sudden drops are common.

After all this history, a wee break at the beach sounds like a good idea and Bulgaria has a long, sandy Black Sea coast with resorts to rival those of western Europe. Varna and Burgas are two seaside cities famous for summer festivals and nightlife. If you prefer your beach scene a little quieter, then the recommendation is to head to the far north or south where picturesque ancient towns are waiting to welcome you.

So, with all there is to see and do, I’m sure soon you will be hearing, “I’m off to Bulgaria on holiday.” Who knows, maybe I’ll be able to include it in my 2017 European Adventure and take my daughter to her namesake city.

Happy travels and reading, everyone.

photo credit: Georgi C Peace via photopin (license) 

Greece

We’ll slip down south from Macedonia and into Greece for today’s post. I’ve been to Greece. Twice technically although once was only to change plans. I was taking my mother to Egypt, we landed at Athens airport, she looked around and said, “It looks just like Kamloops.” Great, I take my mother on an epic around-the-world adventure, to the cradle of civilization, and she compares it to a pokey town four hours from where she grew up in British Columbia, Canada.

The first time I went to Greece, however, I was alone, but on a very tight budget having already spent most of my money. The first thing to know about Greece is that the plumbing system is original to when Alexander the Great ruled the place, so you can’t actually put toilet paper into the toilet, you’re supposed to put it in a waste bin next to the toilet. Result, the washrooms stink. This may have improved since I was there, and maybe newer hotels don’t have this issue, but if you stay in a dive like I did, be prepared.

Second, Athens is amazing. The Parthenon is fabulous and the way they light it up at night is breathtaking. There are also fabulous views from up there so be sure to take a good camera. Another highlight of Athens is the National Archaeological Museum which I believe was free one day a week when I was there but given the state of Greece’s finances, they undoubtedly removed that now. But trust me, it’s worth it. I spent many happy hours wandering around this museum.

My time in Athens was, however limited as I was joining a tour in Istanbul, Turkey in a few days’ time. So I took a night bus to Kavala in northern Greece. I think I was the only foreigner, at least the only woman on the bus, so it was a bit intimidating. In the middle of the night we stopped at Thessaloniki so the driver could have a break. We all had to get off but I had no idea how long we were staying so didn’t risk going into the nearby café. Twenty minutes later when we were allowed back on the bus, I was frozen. From Kavala I had planned to visit the town of Philippi but soon discovered that the bus I’d hoped to get to Istanbul the next day either wasn’t running or was full so I needed to take the night train from Xanthi. 

With a whole day to kill and nowhere to store my bag, I found a nice park and set about reading a book and people watching. An elderly lady walked by me, stopped, and then returned and offered me a pear from her shopping. Of all amazing the things I’d seen in Greece, the mishaps and misadventures, this was my over-riding memory—an elderly widow (I’m guessing because she was dressed all in black) offering me a piece of fruit. Her kindness touched my heart.

When I finally got the bus to Xanthi, I discovered that the train station was not near the bus stop. I wandered around for a while before pulling out my Greek phrasebook and asking a couple eating at an outdoor café, in Greek, if they knew the way to the train station. Well, my Greek must have been amazing because they answered in perfect English and told me it was too far to walk and I’d have to get a taxi. At least they’d understood what I said. My train trip to Istanbul was another adventure, but not one I will commit to writing.

I still have dreams of touring more of Greece, definitely visiting some of the islands. But in the meantime, I’ve had to content myself with research for writing my book, The Greek’s Stowaway Bride. It’s one of my favourite books I’ve written (the heroine was unstoppable) so if you haven’t read it yet, be sure to pick it up.

Until November, happy trails and good reading!

 

photo credit: xiquinhosilva 04620-Athens-Acropolis via photopin (license) 

Macedonia

North of Greece and east of Albania is the small land-locked country of Macedonia, another former part of Yugoslavia. I know next to nothing about this country so let’s discover it together. At first I thought Macedonia was the original homeland of Alexander the Great but upon further research discovered that he was from an area of Greece with the same name. In fact, Greece has strongly objected to Macedonia taking that name and has blocked the newly formed country’s entry into several global organizations due to its concerns.

The country now calling itself Macedonia is in fact the approximate territory of the ancient kingdom of Paeonia. Philip, Alexander the Great’s father, conquered part of the land and Alexander the remainder during his reign, incorporating it into their kingdom of Macedon, so I guess that’s where they lay claim to the name. Throughout history, the country appears to have been overrun by the superpower of the day—Romans, Normans, Byzantines, Slavs, Ottomans, Serbians, Bulgarians—each have left their mark on this territory. With such a diverse history, there must be lots to see and do so let’s check it out.

Golem Grad is the number one place to visit in Macedonia. It’s an island in Lake Prespa, best reached by boat from the village of Konjsko. There are dozens of ruins to explore, ranging from a 4th century Roman cistern to a 5th century basilica and a 14th century church. I was all ready to book my travel until I read that it is also called Snake Island and while the majority of snakes are “harmless”’ water snakes, there are some poisonous land snakes as well to watch for. So, maybe I’ll pass for this time.

There are also a couple of ancient monasteries to visit and an extensive Roman ruin to explore. But if my time were limited I’d probably chose to spend it in Ohrid. This small city, set on a lake of the same name, is a UNESCO world heritage site. You can stroll along the lake on a boardwalk to beaches, bars and restaurants. The translucent cool water and cliff-backed setting lead to the Church of Sveti Jovan with magnificent views over the lake and mountains in the distance. Also on Lake Ohrid is Vevčani, a 9th century mountain side village with narrow old-brick streets, natural springs, and traditional restaurants.

Speaking of mountains, Macedonia has them and the walking trails are reputed to be wonderful and quiet. The whole country is evidently “under-explored” although in general this means you may need to be inventive if you want to see or do something specific.

Finally, a stay in Skopje (the capital) seems in order, including a few hours (or maybe more) in the nearby Ĉaršija, an old Turkish town that hosts Skopje’s best historic structures including a stone bridge. The area’s winding lanes are full of tea houses, mosques, small shops and evidently good nightlife.

Although it sounds interesting, I’m not sure Macedonia will make next year’s European adventure itinerary. But I would love to visit someday. Have you been? See you back here on the 15th. Until then, happy trials and happy reading.

 

photo credit: mariusz kluzniak sunken st nicholas church and lake mavrovo macedonia via photopin (license)

Serbia

Today’s destination is just to the east of where we left off in Bosnia-Hercegovina, the newly-minted country of Serbia. The Republic of Serbia officially became an independent country in 2006 when it split from Montenegro. Of course the region’s history goes back much farther. Seventeen Roman emperors were born in the area today occupied by Serbia and many built palaces or left monuments to commemorate their place of birth. Given its geographical location, Serbian history is a mix of cultures, ethnicities and religion. Today, Serbia is a warm, welcoming place with a strong reputation for fun.

Two citadels top the list of things to see in Serbia. The first, Petrovaradin Citadel is nicknamed the Gibraltar of the Danube and is located in Novi Sad, just north of the capital Belgrade. Novi Sad itself seems worth a visit, even if citadels aren’t your thing. All the attractions are easily reached on foot along a pedestrian thoroughfare and there are plenty of outdoor cafes to indulge your people-watching passions.

The second citadel of note is in Belgrade. Kalemegdan has been fought over more than a hundred times and destroyed over forty times. My favorite quote about this place comes from Lonely Planet’s travel website: (https://www.lonelyplanet.com/serbia/belgrade/sights/military/kalemegdan-citadel) “The fort's bloody history, discernible despite today's plethora of jolly cafes and funfairs, only makes Kalemegdan all the more fascinating.” Belgrade, by the way, is touted as one of the world’s wildest party destinations. Sounds like a perfect meet-cute setting for a romantic comedy.

Once you’re partied-out, you can make a trip to Studenica Monastery, one of the most sacred sites in Serbia. Founded in 1190 by then prince, now saint, Stefan Nemanja, the monastery continues operation today while welcoming visitors. Perversely, the fourth suggested attraction on the list is a trip to Devil’s Town in the southern part of Serbia. It’s actually a cluster of 202 natural stone pyramids which loom over a bright-red, highly acidic mineral stream. I’ve seen the pictures, it’s not all that scary.

If man-made architecture is more your thing, then a day-trip to Subotica should be on your itinerary. Art-nouveau is mixed with Serbian and Hungarian flavors and the city has been called one of the most beautiful in the country. And then there are the nearby lakes Palic and Ludaš, both extremely shallow. Ludaš has an average depth of 1 meter and the water temperature reaches up to 30C in summer.

It seems that partying or festivals are the real draw for visiting Serbia. Novi Sad hosts EXIT, Serbia’s largest music festival. Belgrade is known for its exuberant nightlife. And evidently sipping posh cocktails in the antiquated alleyways of Niš is a thing. I’d like it to be my thing.

So, there you have it, Serbia. See you back here in October. And if you’ve enjoyed this blog don’t hesitate to subscribe and/or sign up for my free monthly newsletter where I give away books, post exclusive excerpts…and there may be a cocktail recipe every now and again as well. Cheers!

photo credit: Skadarska Street, Belgrade via photopin (license)

Bosnia and Hercegovina

Yup, you guessed it, we are sticking with the Balkan countries and visiting Bosnia-Hercegovina today. I moved to Europe right when the Bosnian war started, so my initial thoughts on this country are tarnished by the brutality and war crimes that occurred during this horrific episode of the country’s history. For today, though, we are going to set that aside and concentrate on what there is to do and see in this all but for 20km land-locked country.

 

The capital, Sarajevo, is sometimes called the “Jerusalem of Europe” for its rich history of religious and cultural variety.  The city has an interesting history: it was an Ottoman stronghold in the 15th century; the location of the assassination of the Archduke of Austria that sparked the Second World War; host city for the 1984 Winter Olympics; and has the unenviable designation as the city to undergo the longest siege during modern warfare (1,425 days during the Bosnian war). Much of the city has been restored, the bullet holes plastered over, and seems worth a visit. The old town has both an evocative Ottoman quarter with little streets filled with craft workshops and cafes and a trendy Austria-Hungarian quarter built during the late 19th century.

 

From the websites I’ve checked, Stari Most in Mostar is the country’s chief attraction. This bridge was built in 1566 on the order of Suleiman the Magnificent (I tell you, they just don’t name leaders like they used to). However, the original bridge was destroyed in 1993 during the war but has meticulously been reconstructed using original techniques and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

Bosnia-Hercegovina also offer some of Europe’s best river rafting and cheap skiing, although I can say from experience that cheap is not always a good idea when it comes to ski holidays.  However, in 2012 National Geographic named Bosnia as the best mountain biking adventure destination.

 

Many tours and adventures seem to focus on the recent war, as I guess is to be expected. And lots of the historic buildings and sites were damaged or destroyed. Some have been rebuilt (like the Stari Most) but others remain in ruins. From what I’ve been able to find, tourism is just getting a foothold in the country, although it is expected to have the third highest tourism growth rate in the world between 1995 and 2020. This statistic made me smile because I imagine that as the war only ended in late 1995, there wasn’t a lot of tourism happening that year. So any growth would be remarkable.

 

However, if you don’t like crowds and want to be the first to “discover” hidden treasures, Bosnia and Hercegovina may be the destination you’re looking for. Just be careful and consult with the locals, because a couple sites I researched mentioned that not all the landmines have been cleared from the country.

 

Unfortunately, I don’t think it will make my 2017 European Adventure itinerary. But if you do go, or have been, please comment and tell me what I’m missing. Until next time, happy trails.

 

photo credit: via photopin (license)

Slovenia

We’re sticking with the Balkans and venturing a little farther north into Slovenia. Bordered by Italy to the west, Austria to the north, Hungary to the north east and Croatia to the south, Slovenia has a tiny bit of coastline on the Adriatic Sea. It is a mostly mountainous country. The capital is Ljubljana which for some reason makes me smile. Maybe because it sounds like you need to be underwater to pronounce it correctly. With only 2 million people and half of the country covered in forest, Slovenia seems an ideal place to get away from the crowds that consume many European countries.

The first photo I saw of Ljubljana, I thought it was the canals of St. Petersburg and had to double checked the caption.  And with less than 300,000 inhabitants Slovenia’s largest city shouldn’t be too crowded. Ljubljana was voted the Green Capital of Europe for 2016 and cars are restricted in the city center so it sounds like a pedestrian paradise. And there’s a castle. You can get to it by a funicular (if you don’t fancy the hike up the hill) and they have Time Machine Tours, although unfortunately they’re not led by Dr. Who.

Another not-to-miss attraction in Ljubljana is the market. If possible, go on a Friday in summer when it's the venue for Odprta Kuhna, a weekly food fair with local and international specialties cooked on site from restaurants around the city and beyond (source: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/slovenia/ljubljana/sights/markets-bazaars/central-market#ixzz4HQ8g1pXE). Yum, sounds delicious, especially when I read that Slovenians are obsessed with using only fresh, locally sourced ingredients. I’d probably have to roll my husband who is a foodie away from here.

The country is also known for its abundance of clean water and its thermal hot springs. According to the Slovenia info site, all the health resorts are located in “the heart of intact nature.” Some of the photos look truly stunning so if rest and relaxation are on your to-do list then you may have found your next destination. If you prefer something more active then you can choose from skiing, walking/hiking, horseback riding, rafting or cycling. Or my favorite sport, walking along a beach.

If you do travel here, take a jaunt to Lake Bled, the iconic Slovenian destination with mountain peaks, alpine meadows, and a lake complete with an island and a castle. And if you want a truly European memory, time your visit for the third Sunday in September and attend the Cows’ Ball in Bohinj when the cows return from the summer pasture and are decorated with wreaths and paraded back to their farms accompanied by the herders, cheesemakers, milkmaids and other farming types. You might just want to watch where you step.

Slovenia, yet another country vying for a stop on my European itinerary. See you back here on September 1 when we’ll visit Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ciao for now.

 

photo credit: Wilderness via photopin (license)

Croatia

Dubrovnik, CroatiaWe will continue to explore the Adriatic coast by venturing into Croatia. This country must have been on my mind because while I was writing a short scene for an upcoming promotion, my hero whispered in my ear that he was Croatian. So for today, I’m going to give you an insight into the type of things I research when I write. Bear in mind that until I actually delve into the book, there are other questions that will come up. For instance, I already know that I’m going to have a boat scene and am wondering if Croatia have an Olympic sailing team (the answer is yes).

I also look at the history of a country, mostly for my enjoyment. Croatia has had a turbulent past, as has much of this region, and fought for its independence in the 1990s. War has a significant impact on people so will undoubtedly be an influencing factor on my hero’s personality and motivations.

Food also plays an important part in a culture, so I like to research the national dishes. Croatia has a diversity of gastronomic delights. With a large coastline, fish of course feature, as well as a typical Mediterranean diet with Italian influences. However inland, such as on the flat plains of Slavonia, it seems more meat-based dishes predominate. There is one called Poderane Gaće that translates as “ripped underpants” which sounds interesting, from what I can tell it’s kind of like a donut cooked in pork fat or oil and popular at country fairs. I may have to incorporate that into my story.

The type of housing and climate are also factors that need to be considered. Will my couple cozy up in front of a fireplace on a cold winter night? Or be kicking of the sheets because it’s too hot to sleep in the summer. Of course, as I write billionaire romance, my hero can afford air conditioning, but I have a feeling this guy may be a bit dastardly and as part of his revenge plot insist the heroine live in his run-down childhood home in the country rather than his coastal mansion.

But no research, especially for one of my books, would be complete without checking out the best places to visit. And Croatia has no shortage of these. Ranked the eighteenth most popular tourist destination in the world, it has seven UNESCO world heritage sites including the old town of Dubrovnik and the Plitvice Lakes National Park. Both of which I’ll have to incorporate into my story.

However, in addition to writing a story set here, I’m also planning my next year’s summer vacation and I think Croatia will definitely be on the itinerary, as personal research of course. After all, there’s only so much you can learn from books.

Have you been to Croatia? What do you suggest I visit/eat/explore?

 

photo credit: Dubrovnik Old Town via photopin (license)

 

Montenegro

In keeping with my last post on Albania, we’re going to continue to explore this corner of Europe and it’s oft-forgotten countries. Today let’s visit Montenegro on the Adriatic Sea. To the south of this country is Albania, to the north Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo and Serbia are to the east. There is also a sliver of Croatia along the north west corner. Montenegro means black mountain and many other countries have translated this name literally into their language so it’s called Crna Gora in Montenegrin. It became an independent country in 2006. From 1918 to 2006 it was part of Yugoslavia, although in 2002/2003 it joined forces with Serbia. Montenegro also has a royal family to “promote Montenegrin identity, culture and traditions through cultural, humanitarian and other non-political activities” the post is currently held by Nikola II Petrović-Njegoš, Crown Prince of Montenegro.

Of course this area has been inhabited for centuries and is full of history. If you’re not into the past, then the present has plenty to offer as well. Here’s a quote from the Lonely Planet site: “Mountains jut sharply from crystal-clear waters in such a way that the word 'looming' is unavoidable. As if that wasn't picturesque enough, ancient walled towns cling to the rocks and dip their feet in the water like they're the ones on holiday. In summer the whole scene is bathed in the scent of wild herbs, conifers and Mediterranean blossoms. The word 'magical' is similarly impossible to avoid.” (Read more: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/montenegro/introduction#ixzz4EnTIDMPg)

Some facts to drop into conversation at your next cocktail party: Montenegro has a population of just over 650,000, the capital is Podgorica (the old royal capital is Cetinje), it has 294 km of coastline of which 73 km is made up of 117 beaches although the majority of them must be very small because the incredibly aptly named Long Beach is 13 km long. So, aside from going to the beach, what else is there to do in this small but stunning country?

The first place to visit is Kotor, an ancient walled city set in a spectacular bay. Another place to visit is the Njegoš Mausoleum set atop Montenegro’s second highest peak, Jezerski Vrh, its in Lovćen National Park. Another must-see destination is Perast which according to Lonely Planet looks like a chunk of Venice floated down the Adriatic and anchored itself in the bay. Wants something a little more active? You can raft on the Tara River in summer or go skiing in the winter. Or, if you’re really adventurous, climb several of the amazing mountain peaks.

So, looks like I’ve got another place to add to my bucket list and a potential setting for a book. Have you been to Montenegro? I’d love to hear what you suggest. See you back here in August and I apologize for the delay in this post, I was out of town for a few days and thought I’d have time to put it up on my website, but I didn’t. Cheers!

 

photo credit: Kotor-port-closeup via photopin (license)

Tirana, Albania

I know very little about this European country, and I imagine most people are in the same position. However, as I watched their football (soccer) team play during Euro2016, I thought I’d investigate a little. I had done some surface research when I wrote The Greek’s Stowaway Bride as it makes reference to the country several times.

Located across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, Albania’s southern border is with Greece, it’s eastern border shared with Kosovo and Macedonia and to the north is Montenegro. Part of the Ottoman Empire until 1912, Albania was conquered by Italy in 1939 and then occupied by Germany in 1943. It became communist in 1944. Ruled by a xenophobic dictator, the country was basically closed until the early 1990s when it became a democracy. Since then Albania has struggled to catch up with the rest of Europe as regards its infrastructure and market economy.

Many of the communist-era buildings have been painted bright colors, but I understand that inside they are falling apart. Likewise, for a country where ownership of personal vehicles was banned until the 1990s, the roadways are poorly paved and anyone driving is cautioned that large potholes, or boulders out of town, often litter the route. Air pollution is also an issue as many of the cars are older, more polluting models rejected by the rest of Europe.

Enough of the negative, though, if you want to add Tirana or Albania to your ‘been there, done that’ list, what would you do or see in the country? The number one place to visit on several of the sites I researched was a trip to Mount Dajti National Park. You can take a cable car (built by an Austrian company if that reassures you) to near the top and then hike the various trails or just enjoy the view. Evidently many Albanian’s go there for picnic lunches but if you didn’t pack your own food, you can enjoy a lamb feast along with the views at the Panorama Restaurant.

The national history museum is also highly rated. Most of the signage is in English except in the new exhibit that pays homage to those persecuted under the communist regime. Having been occupied for centuries, Albania has lots of historical sites. Unfortunately, many are buried under buildings or only partly excavated. The 15-20,000 seat amphitheater at Durrës has a few occupied houses on the stage. There are several castles to visit and an ancient city site called Butrint where the ruins span a 2500-year period. What caught my eye, however, were the caves of Pellumbas which is outside the village of the same name. The village in itself seems worth the visit, a true picture of Albanian life past, present and future. The village boasts two cafés, so stop at one before you head to the caves and the other on the trip back. By the way, the road to the village is noted as “treacherous” so you may want to leave the driving to someone else.

That’s it for Albania for this post. If you’ve been to this not-often-heard-of country, I’d love to hear from you. Otherwise, I’ll see you back here on the 15th for another exciting destination. In the meantime, I’ll be watching more Euro2016 football. Go, Iceland!

photo credit: Souvenirshop in Gjirokaster via photopin (license)

Moscow, Russia

I spent two weeks in Moscow, many, many, years ago. It was when I went to summer school in St. Petersburg, in my relatively unsuccessful attempt to learn Russian. The Moscow excursion was part of the package. I really enjoyed my visit and I only scratched the surface of this amazing city.

The first stop on most Moscow itineraries includes Red Square and the impressive buildings in its vicinity: the Kremlin, Saint Basil’s Cathedral, (which looks large in photos but really isn’t that big) and the Armoury. If you have an interest in Russian history, you can queue for an hour or so and walk silently past the body of Vladimir Lenin in the mausoleum also located in the square. At least it’s a break from the constant loudspeaker announcements of various tour groups. Also of interest is the GUM department store (GUM is short for Глáвный универсáльный магазѝн or main universal store if your Russian’s not much better than mine). From what I remember, rather than a traditional north American department store, it was lots of little boutiques housed in an impressive, glass-roofed building. Definitely worth a visit but I don’t remember buying anything.

One of my most memorable occasions spent in Moscow was at the magnificent Bolshoi Theatre where I watched a production of the opera Aida. The other students who were with me got bored and left at intermission but I stayed for the rest of the performance. Afterward, at the metro station, on my way back to my hotel, there were tens of people queued up outside, selling various items. I bought a bag of piroshky from a very elderly lady. Pirosky are buns or pies, stuffed with meat or vegetables. The ones I bought from that little old lady were the best I’ve ever eaten.

If the weather is poor, spend a day touring Moscow’s metro stations. Actually, do it even if it's gorgeous outside. They’re as impressive as many historical houses I’ve visited. Every website I checked listed different ones as their top picks. Here are some that interested me: Kiyevskaya, Komsomolskaya, Mayakovskaya. There is even one now dedicated to the works of Dostoyevsky. Having read Crime and Punishment, I can’t say I’d be quick to visit this one if it’s as depressing as the novel.

If you’re in the market for souvenirs, then you can’t go wrong with a visit to Izmailovsky market. An outdoor flea/antique market/tourist trap, there’s something for everyone here. I remember buying nice engraved pocket watches for my brothers. No idea if they worked for long or if they still have them. I would have loved to buy a beautiful samovar for myself but had no way to transport it home. The market is not located by the metro station with the same name, so get good directions before you head out and check to make sure it’s open.

There’s also the famed Gorky Park, tons of museums and historical buildings and just plain people watching to do in Moscow. I’d definitely love to go back. Have you been? Where would you recommend visiting?