Recap of the Best Year of My Life

If I measure 2016 by the one yardstick that matters to me, how much I travelled, it was the best year of my life. That’s hard to reconcile with how horrible the year was to the world in general, but it’s my truth.

This was a rare year of my life where there was enough money to do what I wanted to do. I prioritised paying for the big stuff, like making sure I had a roof over my head, could get from point A to point B, and that I stayed healthy. I savoured the little stuff I could afford. I refused to be a glass half empty person and bemoan that I couldn’t do X, Y, or Z because of a tight budget and instead celebrated that I was wherever I was at that moment.

I covered so much ground this year that you might have forgotten where I started. So here’s my 2016 travel retrospective.

January started in Mazatlán, Mexico. It was the second year of my life starting there and the novelty hadn’t worn off! I spent many hours cantering on a beautiful tropical beach, a weekly ritual that made me feel like the richest and luckiest woman in the world.

The lagoon at the Isla de la Piedra botanical gardens.

The lagoon in Mazatlán’s Bosque de la Ciudad.

February brought me to Mérida, in the Mexican state of Yucatán, on a scouting mission in anticipation of possibly moving there!

I saw ancient Mayan ruins!

The Mayan ruins at Uxmal.

The Mayan ruins at Uxmal.

March had me discovering the wonderful botanical gardens right in my backyard on Isla de la Piedra.

The lake at the heart of Isla de la Piedra's botanical gardens.

The lake at the heart of Isla de la Piedra’s botanical gardens.

April found me seeing Monument Valley

Monument Valley

Monument Valley

…and exploring Arches National Park

Landscape Arch, Arches National Park

Landscape Arch, Arches National Park

…and the town of Moab, Utah.

May took me to Cody, Wyoming

downtown Cody, WY

downtown Cody, WY

…with plenty of time to explore the Center of the West

Sacagawea at Center of the West

Sacagawea at Center of the West

… and a Japanese internment camp

Heart Mountain Interpretive Center

Heart Mountain Interpretive Center

… before going home to Haven…

Sunset at Haven, May, 2016

Sunset at Haven, May, 2016

… before getting on a plane and technically visiting my last Canadian province.


So June took me to London, England (really!)…

London from the St. Paul's Cathedral

London from St. Paul’s Cathedral


… and to Bulgaria!

Malak Izvor, Bulgaria

Malak Izvor, Bulgaria


July took me on two trips to Sofia, Bulgaria.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia

August took me to Plovdiv

Plovdiv from Nebet Hill

Plovdiv from Nebet Hill

… and across Bulgaria in a Chevy to Nessebar

Old Nessebar, Bulgaria

Old Nessebar, Bulgaria

…to Soviet ruins



Veliko Tarnovo

Tsaravets Fortress, Veliko Tarnovo

Tsaravets Fortress, Veliko Tarnovo

…the scenic town of Teteven



Prohodna (Eyes of God Cave)

Prohodna (Eyes of God Cave)

Prohodna (Eyes of God Cave)

…the Etropole Waterfall

Etropole Waterfall

Etropole Waterfall

…and a the magnificent 15th century Glozhene Monastery.

inside the Glozhene Monastery

inside the Glozhene Monastery

September saw me quit Bulgaria for Serbia and finish the month in Belgrade.

Zemun, Belgrade, Serbia

Zemun, Belgrade, Serbia

October found me in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Sarajevo, BiH

Sarajevo, BiH

Kotor, Montenegro

Old Kotor, Montenegro

Old Kotor, Montenegro

…blipping through Albania

an Albanian fortress

an Albanian fortress

…staying out too late in Prizen, Kosovo

Prizren, Kosovo

Prizren, Kosovo

…not being impressed by Skopje, Macedonia

Archaeological Museum, Skopje

Archaeological Museum, Skopje


…ambling through Barcelona, Spain

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona


… then through Alicante

Alicante, Spain

Alicante, Spain

… before settling in Almería for seven weeks.

The port of Almería

The port of Almería

November was spent in lovely Almería learning to live in the real Spain.

Pedestrian street in downtown Almería

Pedestrian street in downtown Almería

December saw me in Málaga for a few days…

Málaga from the top of the itinerant Ferris wheel.


…before jetting off to end the year and ring in 2017 in Amsterdam, Netherlands!

Quintessential Amsterdam scene


What a journey 2016 was, from getting more and more comfortable in Mexico to becoming a seasoned European traveler!

But the most amazing thing that happened? I was offered my key to Mexico. So my 2017 is well plotted. But before I return to the blistering tropical heat of the Yucatán, England, Quebec, and Haven beckon. So clichéd as the saying is, the best really is yet to come.

Happy New Year to all of you lovely readers!

Nessebar to Veliko Tarnovo By Way of Buzludzha (and 50 Billion Wrong Turns)

It was not an easy day, one of those where I found myself wondering multiple times why the hell I can’t just be content living a “normal” sedentary life. And then, I remembered a tee-shirt I saw last night that said, “No growth ever came from a comfort zone.” I’m starting to understand that a large part of this urge of mine to go and to do new things has to do with the angry, timid, fearful thing I used to be, that it’s a way of distancing myself from someone I loathed and had no patience for. Heavy stuff, I know, and probably not what you come here for, but it was a day for reflection.

I was up fairly early and went down to the lobby to use the hotel wifi since I’d used up all my free Telenor credit and was burning really fast through my balance. It was too early for breakfast, but the hotel clerk slipped me a coffee, with just the right amount of milk. What service!

Last night, I’d almost booked accommodation in Veliko Tarnovo, but I couldn’t commit to anything. It was the same thing this morning. It was just going to have to be one of those days where I landed where I landed, even if the thought of looking for a hotel “cold” in a country where I don’t speak the language filled me with dread. To be honest, I had a very strong suspicion that I would sleep at “home” tonight in Maluk Izvor.

Breakfast came, the same as yesterday, but with a red juice and pears for a change. I was asked where I was headed today and when I replied, the clerk was taken aback and said it was in the middle of nowhere, so she’d pack me a lunch! And she did! Talk about five-star service at a one star price!

I headed out around 8:30, with the plan being to get another top up at the Telenor store in Nessebar, just in case. Well… There is almost no street signage in Nessebar and what should have been a 10-minute trip took me about an hour, including a detour into Sunny Beach against my will! It was so ridiculous I had to laugh! But as it turned out, the Telenor store wouldn’t didn’t open until 9:30 anyway, so I would have had to wait or leave without a top up. Things work out!

This wound up being the Telenor store visit I wish I’d had when I first landed in Bulgaria. Sunny Beach is a Brit resort town, so there is English everywhere and this was the first time I encountered a Telenor store employee who spoke absolutely fluent English and could give me some tips. He was appalled that I’ve been paying for my data piecemeal rather than getting a plan and pointed out that I went from a 26BGN to a 0.10BGN balance in about 10 minutes of surfing last night. Woah!!! I’ve only ever used my phone for the odd surfing before, never for anything as intensive as the last couple of days, and had no idea I was paying so much for my bandwidth. The clerk added 20BGN to my account and then walked me through buying a 1GB plan for one week for just 4BGN. Better late than never! But, really, this was the first time since I got here that I felt that I got “taken” for bandwidth and I can’t be too upset since Telenor gave me 1GB of data with my last top up, in addition to tons of other gifts of bandwidth since I got here.

That done, it was finally time to hit the open road. I wanted to get to Buzludzha Monument and after that decide if I was going home or to Veliko Tarnovo to see the Tsaravets fortress.

I was stuck in a traffic jam just outside of Burgas when I realised I’d left my camera at the hotel! DANG. The battery went dead mid-day yesterday and I’d set the camera aside after transferring the photos to my computer, then forgotten to put it somewhere that I’d see it. I got through Burgas (much more easily this time) and pulled over to call and email the hotel. Long story short on that, they found it and I’m reasonably sure I will get it back. I love my camera and felt no need to replace it, but it is seven years old and starting to get spots in the lens if the sun hits it the wrong way. I will be happy to get it back, but am ready to accept its loss if it doesn’t get back to me.

But that leaves me with my phone for a camera, a phone with super crappy battery life. I’ve been using it as a GPS, which really sucks the life out of it. So I knew that if I only had my phone for a GPS and camera this week, I really needed a way to charge it on the road. Spoiler on that, I bought FOUR different car chargers today and not one of them worked with my iPhone. *expletive deleted* Apple. I might get it if they had a car charger of their own, but they don’t! I have to say that my day would have been much less stressful and exhausting if I’d been able to charge my phone and use the GPS as much as needed. I was able to return three of the chargers, so I’m only out about 7CAD, thankfully. When I get to Sofia on Saturday, I’ll go to an Apple Store and ask about a secondary power source for the phone. I’d like to once again point out that I only have an iPhone because it was free! Yes, I am a Mac and iPad geek, but, really, the iPhone is a huge disappointment all around. Aaaaaaaanyway.

I retraced part of my Saturday route to Plovdiv before swinging north at Yambol and then west at Sliven:


I got turned around at Sliven because of a badly marked roundabout and was getting really frustrated with the lack of signage as well as on the verge of heat stroke despite the AC in the car. I was really tempted to just give up and go home. But Buzludzha was the one thing I really wanted to see in Bulgaria before I knew anything about Bulgaria, that unique gem off the beaten path that embodies the spirit of an era. I made it to Kazanluk and, to my immense surprise, came across two signs directing me to Buzludzha! That was not expected. The signs had a different transliteration, but I could recognise the name for what it was in Cyrillic. I was down to about 5% battery power at this point and really grateful to have made it, even if I had no idea how I’d get anywhere from there. I pulled over and had my very nice lunch. What a gift.

A few more turns and then, nothing mattered anymore because I had finally found Buzludzha. I pulled over and just stared:


My phone died just after I took the above picture and I was devastated to have come all this way and have no camera to record my adventure. Then, I remembered that my computer has a camera. It would be clumsy, but better than nothing. Then, I laughed at myself when I remembered that I also had my iPad, with its own camera! Rather funny for someone who traveled for many years without a camera that I now have all these gadgets with cameras!

So Buzludzha… It is a monument to socialist communism, the construction of which began in 1974. The building was abandoned and left to vandals after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. It is crumbling and after tourists were injured a few years back, the interior has been blocked from access, but there are now plans to possibly revive this building before it is completely irreparable. My best friend Bast sent me a video about Buzludzha just before I went to Bulgaria and I knew that if I could only get away from Malak Izvor for a day, I would have to find my way to this monument.

To get there, I had to follow a very long and meandering road up that reminded me of the Devil’s Backbone. At the end of it was a place to park, with a very long climb ahead of me. I didn’t realise the climb was that long and felt rather unprepared, with not enough water, but there was a lovely cool breeze at that altitude, so I decided I would start and see how far I got. I have to admit that I asked myself multiple times on the climb if I really needed to get to the top, it was that difficult of a hike!

I have to say I’m rather pleased with how my iPad photos came out!

IMG_0417Starting off:





I look so close here, but it was still so far! My heart was pounding and I had to remind myself that I didn’t need to break any speed records to get to the top!







I was done the worst of the climb up at this point, but still wasn’t there. I took a breather as I laughed at just how much it looks like a Starfleet vessel!



I am convinced the architect was a Star Trek fan!



I was shocked when I actually made it to the top! There appeared to be a spectator facility in front of the monument:


As I saw the monument from the front, I was really pleased I’d made it all the way up. There was something so spooky about it that I had not felt from further away.




Transferring a little of my energy to this place of immense power…







It was incredibly creepy and I heard weird noises, so imagine my surprise when I rounded the building and found workers! I wonder how they got their vehicles up there!








I got my fill of Buzludzha and the view and then headed back down to my car. There was a group at the the trailhead who asked me if the climb up was as hard as it looked. I replied that I’ve been hiking up a mountain twice daily for two months and found it tough, but it was worth it. At last view, the group was heading up. I wonder if they got there.

It was rather a fun descent back to a “main” road. I turned north towards Gabrovo, where I would have to decide if I was going west to Malak Izvor or east to Veliko Tarnovo. This wound up being a sinewy mountain drive, the kind I love in a zippy manual transmission car!

I was feeling very parched by this point and hoped to pass a store soon to get more water when I rounded a corner where there were a bunch of cars parked and people milling about. I knew I’d started to understand some things about Bulgaria when my first thought at the sight was WATER.


There are so many fountains and mountain springs scattered all over this country, and sometimes in the most random places! I buy water when I really need to, but I’m learning to look for the fountains. I haven’t had bad tasting water yet nor any that played havoc with my fragile digestion. I filled up my water bottle, drank deeply, and then filled it again. I’m actually finishing off that water tonight, as I’m writing this post.

At Gabrovo, it was time to make my decision. Home or the unknown? It felt very important to me that I pick the latter option, that I was at one of those watershed moments of my life. I could seek the easy path or push forward through my fear. I’d successfully landed somewhere good and safe in Mexico after going off script on my first drive down to Mazatlán. And, really, nothing tonight could be as bad as landing in Edinburgh with a 20 quid a day budget to find all the hostels full. I chose the easterly route. Veliko Tarnovo or bust!

There was decent-ish signage for me to follow, but at one point, I saw signs for the town that pointed in different directions! I stopped for fuel and asked the attendant if he spoke English. He had just enough to tell me to, “Go that way and if you get to Romania, you go too far.” LOL LOL LOL That was my favourite moment of the day! I couldn’t believe I was less than 120KM from the Romanian border, just a bit further than Assiniboia is from the US border.

I made it into Veliko Tarnovo, a medieval city with narrow winding streets, occasionally pausing to take in the majestic view of the fortress of Tsaravets. Sorry, there was no chance to pull over and get a better shot than this:


I drove aimlessly, trying to find a hotel with parking. I finally passed a hotel with a parking spot right in front of it and wondered if I could really be that lucky….



Parking spot, hotel with English speaking clerk, and even at a whopping 80BGN per night (by far my most expensive hotel stay so far), very reasonable by Canadian standards. I also get breakfast and a discount at local restaurants. Fortune favoured the bold!

Not to get too graphic, I really needed a shower after marinating in the car all day and climbing up to Buzludzha, so I did that, changed, and headed out to find some dinner.


IMG_1415It began to POUR as I got close to the restaurant the hotel clerk had highly recommended, Shtastlivetsa, so I was quite wet when I arrived. They were super busy as it’s apparently the most popular place in town and has an amazing view. I somehow managed to get a seat with a bit of a view (too many people in front of me to make it worth taking a picture) and ordered a glass of white wine to sip while I perused the menu. Everything was super fancy and there were ingredients like spelt and quinoa. Prices seemed suspiciously low, especially the main that most appealed to me, what sounded like a pork schnitzel with roasted potatoes, for just 8.60BGN (6.50CAD).

Well, this is what came:


A green veggie would have been nice, but, wow! It was so good! The white thing was cream cheese with dill, which was yummy with the potatoes.

I wasn’t ready to call it a night, so I ordered a second glass of wine and asked for a dessert recommendation. They brought me “biscuit cake” which was three small balls of chocolately something (no pic because my phone was dead again). It was really good! Dinner would have been a real bargain if I’d just stuck to the main and wine, but even with more wine and dessert, I came out at 17CAD! I got a hotel discount of 10%, so I gave a slightly better tip than I normally give. 10% is actually a good tip in Bulgaria, but I sometimes give 15% if I felt service was particularly attentive. Food was was slow to come tonight because the restaurant was very crowded, but I didn’t have to wait long to be seated, order, get wine, etc. It was excellent service by Bulgarian standards!

I got very lost on the way back to the hotel. It was dark, pouring rain (so I couldn’t wear my glasses), and my phone was dead again. I ended up going around in circles twice before I finding a familiar landmark. Rae’s travel tip of the day: have just one glass of wine before going out into a dark rainy medieval fortress city with no street signs and a bunch of narrow streets that all look the same!

Well, it’s been another long one. Lots of good, some bad, plenty of character growth. I have the room till noon, so the plan is to have breakfast at 8:00 when it starts, then spend the morning at the Tsaravets fortress before vacating my parking spot and heading home. But my adventures are not over. I have the car till Friday and a laundry list of things I still want to see on day trips!

Last Day at Home and Off to London

My last day at home wasn’t the flurry of activity one would think. I’m absurdly organised and good at managing my time. I methodically ploughed through my to-do list, including getting three loads of laundry done by noon. I was so on top of things that when Charles came to ask me to run an errand with him in the late afternoon, it didn’t throw a wrench in my plans at all.

When we came home from that, with me taking a good long last view of my beloved valley as we came down the hill into the hamlet, it was time to shut down the internet and power and do one final sweep. I almost forgot my toothbrush and… computer charger!

I trundled down the street with my two travel bags as well as a bag filled with what I needed to get me through the night at C&C’s. I’d brought a few things over earlier in the day, including a tote of things I didn’t want to freeze, and would stow the bag in that tote.

Caroline made me an extra special going away dinner. We started with Greek salad, then had roast pork tenderloin, beets, yellow beans, and rice. They bought a whole live pig last year and butchered it themselves, and boy was it delicious! There was a maple syrup glaze on it that was succulent! The beans were home grown, of course, as were the beets that Caroline canned last year. So good! The extra special part of dinner was that she’d made dessert, a strawberry rhubarb pie (with vanilla ice cream). I’m so spoiled!

Needless to say, the food and wine put me into a coma and I slept pretty well from 10:30 to 3, then, thankfully, I managed to fall asleep for nearly another three hours.

It was pouring rain when I stumbled downstairs, enjoying coffee on the porch with Caroline as we looked at our damp green hills. I forced myself to have a bit of breakfast, just some toast with peanut butter and honey, and then got ready, changing into my airplane outfit, closing up my bags, and stowing what wasn’t coming with me.

The plan had been to leave at 7:00 and we pulled out at 7:15. The drive to the airport in Regina took almost 2.5 hours, but they flew by! As we approached the exit for the airport, I once again expressed how grateful I was for the lift and Caroline replied, “We just wanted to get rid of you and the surest way to do that was to make sure you got to the airport all right!” Bwa ha ha ha. I love her and Charles so much.

We only had a few minutes at the unloading point at the airport to say goodbye and then off I went. I’d checked in the day before and had my boarding passes on my phone, so I went straight to security. There was a bit of a lineup, but it went quickly. It was rather a pain to get my electronics out of my computer bag since it was packed so tightly, but I got it done by the time it was my turn to put stuff in bins.

I got through the scanner without it beeping and then came what felt like an interminable wait for my stuff to get through the X-ray machine. But everything scanned okay and they didn’t make me open my bags or take off my shoes.

Then, came a wait. There’s not much at the Regina airport terminal. I got a second breakfast and a really good coffee and spent some time doing online stuff before calling SaskTel to cancel my service. That was painless and the reps I spoke to were very excited about my trip.

We boarded on time. It was very quick flight to Toronto and I bought a sandwich on board to eat. The airplane sandwiches are always good and fresh and no more expensive than what you get on the ground, so I don’t see the point of trying to juggle a bag of food onto the plane with my gear. Speaking of which, my gear was perfectly sized. My computer bag was really at the limit for under the seat stowage, but I could actually have expanded my suitcase if I wanted to.

My layover in Toronto was really short. We landed at about 5:10 and my next flight was departing at 6:00, which meant I really only had at most 40 minutes to get to the gate. It took forever to deplane and no one else appeared to be in a hurry. I was way at the back of the plane and pleaded to folks to let me through, but no one cared. By the time I got into the terminal, it was 5:30. There was no signage, no departures board, no one to give directions, nothing. I had no idea where I was supposed to catch my flight to St. John’s and didn’t want to risk going too far in the wrong direction looking for assistance. I finally spotted a WestJet agent who was in no hurry to help me. She was chatting with someone else about her plans for the weekend and gave me a dirty look when I said, “Excuse me…”  If there was a time for rudeness, this was it and I firmly said that I needed my gate info. She finally brought it up and the gate was pretty much clear across the terminal. OMG. I raced off and with Pearson being under renovations, there were detours. It took forever to reach the gate, where they were at final boarding call! According to the agent who checked me in, I was literally two minutes from missing my connection. PHEW.

Having made my flight to St. John’s, I could finally relax since I had a longer layover there and now knew that I would very likely get to London on schedule.

There was frost on the window near the end of that leg of my journey:


Here’s how my two bags stack for easy transport through the airport. I do have to say that this got really heavy by the the time I got through Gatwick and I was happy to have a backpack.


My layover in St. John’s felt like it took no time at all. I was disappointed that there was no food to be bought that late at the terminal. I knew I could get a sandwich on the plane, but had hoped for a “real” meal.

I was a little freaked out when I got paged, but it was because they wanted to make sure I was there since I hadn’t checked any luggage!

Before I knew it, it was time to board for the last leg of my journey. I’d hoped to sleep, but the 5-hour flight wasn’t conducive to that. There was a lot of turbulence, so there were constant announcements, plus I was famished and it took almost two hours to get our first beverage service, when I could get a sandwich. But like with my previous two flights, I did nothing on the plane, but close my eyes and at least attempt to doze.

The clouds were thick like snow as we pushed east:


For the second time in my life, I watched the sun rise over the Atlantic.


Sometimes, there was enough break in the clouds to see the ocean:




We flew over what felt like the whole of the south of England, coming up the North Sea coast. I was struck by how rural the country appeared, with so much farmland and only small clusters of cities. Gatwick Airport is well outside of London, so I didn’t get a first glimpse of the city from the air. We landed right on schedule at 8:20am local time.

All I wanted after we landed was to wash my face and brush  my teeth. The first bathroom I encountered was over crowded, but the second was empty. Feeling a little more human, I was ready to face passport control. The long lineup moved quickly. I’d already filled in my tourist card on the plane, so there wasn’t much to do when I got to an agent. I just confirmed how long I was staying and why and that was it, and got my first stamp in a passport since the last time I got to the UK!

Next was customs, but I had nothing to declare, so I just breezed through that. And then, I was in the main part of Gatwick airport and it was time to figure out how to get to London, then across London! Yes, I’d done my research, but it was contradictory and I’d made the decision to figure it out on the spot. To be continued!

Landed in London

I have been up for just over 24 hours straight now, so this is just a brief check-in. I don’t think I’ll blog much while I’m here, to be honest. But I will take lots of pictures and notes and blog when I have the time and energy!

It’s been quite a journey to get here:

Car to Regina

Planes to Gatwick

Train to London

Underground to Queen’s Park

My last connection on the Tube! Was I glad to see it! Gatwick to London Victoria on the train, London Victoria to Oxford Circus on the Tube Victoria line, Oxford Circus to Queen's Park on the Bakerloo line, then switch to the overground part of the Bakerloo line.

My last connection on the Tube! Was I glad to see it! Gatwick to London Victoria on the train, London Victoria to Oxford Circus on the Tube Victoria line, Oxford Circus to Queen’s Park on the Bakerloo line, then switch to the overground part of the Bakerloo line.

Overground to Kensal Green

My own two feet to the Airbnb!

I caught glimpse of the Palace of Westminster and the London Eye, bought an Oyster card, and mastered the Tube. Not a bad day considering I feel like a zombie!

I’m off to find food and to get very far away from my bed!

One Day Left

It has been a very full day and tomorrow will be even worse.

I got up and did a small work assignment, then attempted to file my taxes. Attempted because CRA, in its infinite wisdom, decided to revamp its website in the middle of June when businesses have till the end of the month to file their returns. So the return is ready and I have to wait till my last day in London to send it. Hopefully, there won’t be any hiccups.

Then, I did the first dry run of packing my electronics bag. By the time I added my toiletries bag and the French press, I had to concede I didn’t have enough room, so I had to make some tough concessions after already having pared my electronics list to the bone. But I finally got both bags to close without difficulty even if they are quite full.

I then puttered around, putting things away and cleaning while I waited for Charles to come help me with a few things. This included moving things around in the cabin and putting away part of the swing so that he only needed to help me move in the frame. When he and Caroline showed up, I went on the roof, then Charles spent some time throwing things up to me to weight down a new tarp. The roof has actually not been leaking in some time now, even after several huge storms, so the tarp is just insurance and peace of mind.

Tomorrow’s to-do list in somewhat chronological order:

-laundry, including my bedding
-make a run to the post office in the hope that the two missing things for my trip have arrived at the 11th hour…
-do a deep clean of the rig, including the fridge
-put away the water and sewer hoses
-bring things to C&C’s for storage
-remove the battery from my truck and put it in storage at C&C’s
-put away the exterior internet cable and antenna
-mow the lawn (easier when there’s no water hoses or antenna cables or swing in the way)
-finalise my packing
-collapse at C&C’s with my luggage to spend the night

On to Лондон!

Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road. – Jack Kerouac