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!

Being a Vegetarian or Pescatarian in the Balkans

I am not a vegetarian, but I have a few vegetarian and pescatarian readers, including Croft, who have asked if they would be hungry traveling through the Balkans so I thought the question merited a post. Just keep in mind that I haven’t specifically been looking for meat-free options, so these are just general observations based on things I’ve ordered or seen on menus in Bulgaria, Serbia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

There is a huge difference between the offerings in small towns and those in larger cities, and fish/seafood availability depends on how far you are from a water source. Here are some of the basics you will find just about anywhere:


First of all, fresh produce here is cheap, excellent, and a matter of local pride. I don’t know what the food situation is like in the winter, but in the summer months and well into the autumn, you won’t have a problem getting a basic salad with tomato, lettuce, sweet peppers, cucumber, onion, oil, vinegar, and local cheese. The vegetarians I met in Bulgaria say they combine different salads and add in cheese and bread for a simple meal when eating out.

Pizza and pasta are ubiquitous and really good. So you can often get plain cheese pizza (or sometimes add olives or other veggies!), both in sit down restaurants and at takeaway spots. If a restaurant has pasta on the menu, there will usually be one with a plain tomato sauce or with a cheese sauce.

Savoury pastries, like the Bulgarian banitsa (flaky pastry filled with crumbly white cheese) are very filling and make a good breakfast. When I was in Nessebar, my “typical Bulgarian breakfast” (according to the menu) should have suited Croft just fine — fried dough (or crêpes) with cheese, jam, coffee, and fresh fruit.


They are a major source of protein out here. I don’t eat them, but I’m pretty sure you could get an egg added to just about anything you want.

Bean soup (Bob)

I’ve only seen this in Bulgaria. I don’t know if, like in Mexico, the beans are cooking in animal fat/broth, but if you eat fish, you should be able to handle a little broth. I would imagine salad, bread, and bowl of bob would be a very filling meal.

Larger cities have all of the above, of course, but if you do research, you will find restaurants that specifically offer vegetarian food or with vegetarian options. You will also find fancier salads (I had one in Belgrade that had smoked salmon, capers, and broccoli, and more) and the ubiquitous doner shops usually have falafel on the menu. The Balkan version of Chinese food is pretty common in the larger centres and they have lots of veggie options.

Coastal areas (which include places along rivers, like Zemun, Serbia) have excellent fish and seafood and I’ve seen trout or other fish on the menu further inland, but it tends to be a special of the day. When I was on the Black Sea Coast, you could get many different fish, octopus, squid, shrimps, etc.

I haven’t seen tofu or mock meat here (and I did look for tofu when I was in Sofia because I like it for breakfast, but failed), but have seen ingredients like quinoa on the menu in some places. If you are cooking for yourself, you can find natural food shops all over the large cities with ancient grains and more.

The local food tends to be pretty bland, relying on salt for its flavour, so I’ve had better luck eating the more “international” cuisines. But there’s enough choice that even a strict vegetarian should be able to find something to their liking. If you like pizza, the Balkans will be heaven for you as the pizza here is super inexpensive and crazy good. Pasta has also consistently been a safe bet.

All told, I think that a vegetarian could get a filling meal at any restaurant they walk into. It might not be the most original or tastiest meal of their life, though. But in the summer months, with the tomatoes being as delicious as they are out here, even the basic “shopska salata” is an experience.

Thanks for the question, Croft!

Belgrade, Serbia, to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina (or eight hours on a bus to do 300km)

I actually slept my last night in Serbia. Wow! I got up around 8:00 and had my coffee right away so that it would have time to percolate through me before my eight-hour bus ride. Needless to say, a final coffee off Trg Republike was out of the question! I then dressed and went out to get some vittles for the ride, going to the Maxi behind the National Museum.

It was only about nine when I got in. I finished most of my packing and spent some time enjoying the internet connection before packing my electronics bag and doing a final sweep of the apartment. I headed out around 10:30, with my bus being at 11:30.

I got to the bus station around 10:45, which sounds like I was super early, but I wanted to change some money and also be one of the first on the bus to ensure I’d get a window seat. First, I used the facilities so I could break up a 500RSD note to have some change for the day.

Here’s a woman’s bathroom stall at the Belgrade bus station:


I knew I would eventually encounter these in my travels, but I hadn’t expected it to be in Belgrade! I had no trouble using it, but it felt incongruous to the modern world around me!

In the privacy of the stall, I sorted out my money, keeping 400 or 500RSD in small notes on me for the day, and then took the rest to one of the many money exchange windows. I asked the lady if she spoke English. She said said no very curtly and then started going through her phone. “Euros, please?” I asked her in Serbian and she blatantly ignored me. Okay, fine. I went to the next window and tried again with “Do you speak English?” Nope. But he didn’t dismiss me, so I said, in Serbian what I was pretty sure was, “Please, from dinar to euro.” The guy’s head whipped up and he quirked a smile. I passed him my bills and he sorted them, handing back a few small notes. “45 euro,” he said in perfect English! That was about what I expected to get, so I said okay, then thank you, in Serbian. He wished me a nice trip… in English.

Like in Nish, you need a ticket to go out to the platforms. Unlike in Nish, the system in Belgrade is more antiquated, so you get a token with your ticket rather than a bar code. I had been holding onto my token for dear life since I bought my ticket yesterday! A a security guard got my suitcase through the turnstile while I dealt with the token.

One of the reasons I made sure I had small notes on me was that I was putting a suitcase under the bus and I had to pay 50RSD for that in Nish. So I was thrown for a loop when the driver said, “Shto dinara.” I repeated what he said because I didn’t understand at first. “Da, shto,” he replied. I thought for a second and then trigged onto the fact that shto is 100! Well, 100 is sto in Bulgarian, but close enough. I pulled out a 100RSD note and said, “Shto?” The driver replied, in perfect English, “That’s it, thank you!”

I climbed on board and got one of the last window seats. The bus was packed.


Pretty building by the bus station.

The bus station is right by the river, so we were quickly in New Belgrade and before I could blink, we were out in the country.




I can’t remember why I took this picture!




This part of Serbia is so flat and there are just cornfields as far as the eye can see. It’s rather like Iowa. 🙂





We made a few stops along the way and eventually pulled into the bus station at Šabac. I’m not sure where the open seats came from as I was sure we were full, but more people sat down!


Crossing the Sava yet again.


Serbia feels more prosperous than does Bulgaria. All the Bulgarian towns and villages I visited looked rather alike, well tended, but only at the bare minimum. They were rather shabby or forlorn. The Serbian houses are in a similar style, but have more ornamentation. There are more flowers and greenery and the pavement is in better condition.



This doesn’t look up to code…



Two hours into our eight-hour trip, we pulled into a truck stop for smoke and pee breaks. I was happy about that since there was no bathroom on the bus!

Before long, we were at the Serbian/Bosnian border. Like the Alaska Highway along the Yukon/BC border, we went in and out of Bosnia a few times before getting to the official border crossing.


First glimpse of Bosnia in the distance.


Our side of the river was Serbia, the other side was Bosnia.


A border officer boarded the bus and got our ID cards and passports. They were returned in short order with no stamps, so I figured that was the customs stamp. Sure enough, we moved ahead to another queue and had to give our documents back. The ID cards came back quickly, then the passports, this time with a stamp. And that was it. Welcome to BiH — Bosna i Hercegovina!

My first Bosnian mosque and minaret were right over the border.


I was startled by how literal the border was in terms of geographic change. We moved into a lush green mountainous region that reminded me of “my” part of Bulgaria, only more prosperous (but less prosperous than Serbia).



We continued to make stops and pack people on board. Some folks stood for the last three hours to Sarajevo! If there was free wifi and a city sign, I would check Google Maps to track my progress. Here’s Vlasenica, 90KM, or about three hours, from Sarajevo!


And here’s Sokolac, 43KM and two hours away…


The slow going was in part because we were doing a milk run and in part because of the super twisty mountain road that the driver took slowly while talking on his cell phone most of the way… The scenery, when I could see it, made up for some of the queasiness!



One final detour (I forget where, but it was definitely a detour as we went the wrong way for Sarajevo and had to double back)…



And then, Sarajevo, under a cover of darkness. I was stunned to see that the core of the city is in a valley, with buildings climbing up the sides. I stopped counting the number of lit up minarets at six.


Incredibly, the bus had to climb even higher to get to the bus station. By this point, I was sure I was going to die on that bus and that we were never going to get there. But that said, I’m someone who enjoys the journey, especially when it’s new, and the day had really gone by very fast. I was just ready to land.

We’d had a lot of moments during the day when we could get off for a leg stretch or a pee, so when everyone seemed ready to get off at a stop, I was rather in disbelief that we’d arrived. “Istočno?” I asked my seat mate. She smiled and said, “Yes!” We had arrived!!!

My transfer was supposed to pick me up at 7:30 and we were a little early. I thought I might have time to get some food (I’d eaten snacks just before and after the border crossing, but was too queasy to do so again after), but, nope. There was a guy on the platform holding up a huge sign that said “MRS. REA.” I was pretty sure that was me, LOL!

It was indeed my transfer, Dennis, and he was super friendly. His English isn’t that good, but he did his best to point things out and engage in conversation. The traffic was unbelievable and the ride to old town took ages. I’m sure a taxi ride would have cost me a lot more than the 10 euro I was expected to pay him and was so happy I’d gone with the transfer.

I mentioned that I needed food and he offered to stop en route, but I said that if there was something close by that I could walk to, I preferred to get home and go out again. So as we came into old town, he pointed to what appeared to be a pedestrian street and said that that’s where I should go for dinner and that it was a straight shot down from the house (I didn’t realise just how literally he meant down — I should never have complained about the hill in Maluk Izvor!). Oh, and he did ask me what I wanted specifically, so he could send me straight there, but I said I’m not picky and would take whatever I found!

We got in and he explained a few things about the house to me. I passed him 20 euro for the ride and he gave me 20KM in change, telling me that anything I read about being able to use the euro might apply in downtown Sarajevo, but not in old town, so I better get some marks. I’ll hit an ATM tomorrow. The KM will actually be easier for me than the euro as they are roughly equal to BGN, so I’m used to the conversion rate. Then, I was left to settle in.

The apartment feels really huge (I’ll post pictures tomorrow) since it has a kitchen with a door, a bathroom, an L-shaped hallway, a bedroom, and a living/dining/second bedroom! Unlike other places I’ve stayed, this one isn’t bare and has had long-term tenants, so there is a lot of stuff lying around and I’ll have to be careful not spread out too much lest I forget something. The kitchen and bathroom aren’t as clean as I would have liked, but, really, it’s fine and I should be comfortable here for a week once I sort myself out.

I hiked down to the pedestrian street and look forward to going again when I’m not so knackered and famished as it’s a really interesting place! I heard a lot of Arabic and my headscarf was not out of place. I really didn’t want to overthink dinner so I went to the first place I saw the locals queuing up and ended up with a huge lamb donair sandwich for 2KM (about 1.50CAD). It was surprisingly bland (I’m glad I accepted the spicy stuff they offered), but hit the spot, offering a good balance of bread, light meat, and lots of veggies.

To get to the house, I have to open the pedestrian door to a garage, cross the garage, open another door, and cross a yard. Coming up my street, I realised with a sinking feeling that I hadn’t made note of any landmarks around my garage entrance. It was dark-coloured, but so were a lot of other doors. Just as I was ready to double back, sure that I’d missed it, I saw it! I was glad to get in as it was getting cold (the house is actually rather cold right now and I hope I’ll be comfortable tonight).

I cannot believe that I’m in Sarajevo!

Or that it takes eight hours to go from Belgrade to Sarajevo on a bus…

A Final Day in Belgrade

I got extra work so I needed to work harder than expected today. I actually got started early and so I was able to break at 10:30 to go to the bus station. It’s only about 1KM away, but the walk there, even with a map and GPS, is very difficult since pedestrians get routed through alleys and parks. The route by car is almost three times as long! It’s actually brilliant that Google takes pedestrians off road on the shortest path, but dang am I glad I gave up and took a taxi when I arrived or I’d still be lost! It would have also sucked to go up all those stairs with my suitcase. The walk there will be easier.

En route, I encountered a group of Syrian refugees in a park, all young men in their prime, another generation lost to hatred and ignorance. You can go to my Facebook if you want to read more.

I stopped at a cafe for a coffee on the way back. This is a luxury that, really, I don’t want to afford on a regular basis back in Canada and the US as an espresso can be as much as $4 and a cappuccino can be $5 or more. In Bulgaria and Serbia, you can get an espresso to go for less than 1CAD and it’s about 1.50 to 2CAD in a cafe with a token tip. I like my own coffee very much, but the experience of sitting in a square to people watch while sipping an espresso is a quintessentially European experience, even luxury, that I really love.

It was almost noon as I got home and I was hungry, so I went around back to Caribic Pizza for a slice to go. There’s another pizza place almost right next door, but their slices look terrible. Caribic, a chain I’ve seen all over the parts of Belgrade I’ve explored, has some original toppings and a really good crust. For lunch, I had a choice of a slice with ham, cheese, and mushrooms or their “Mexico” slice, which had seasoned ground beef, sweet bell peppers, jalapeños, and cheese. You can imagine which one I picked. I can’t believe how much I’ve missed jalapeños! Pizza by the slice is another way that the Balkans have spoiled me. Even the worst pizza by the slice I’ve had here has been better than the best I’ve had in North America outside of New York City.

After lunch, I touched base with my host here to let him know when I’m leaving and with my host in Sarajevo to let him know when I’m arriving. I’m so glad to be going to another apartment. I will very likely be stopping over in expensive Dubrovnik, Croatia, for a couple of nights and they will have to be in hostels.

Here are some shots of the view outside my fourth floor Belgrade apartment.

Looking to Dečanska (where the red car is on the crosswalk). Dečanska becomes Braće Jugovića across Makedonska (my street, behind me) and has a couple of fast food places, including pizza, as well as a tiny convenience store with a very nice couple running it. Skadarlija Street terminates in Braće Jugovića.


Looking kind of east down Makedonska.


Looking kind of west down Makedonska towards Republic Square. You can see a building in the background that is not parallel to the one in the foreground. It sits in Republic Square. I was that close!


The apartment was noisy, especially when the garbage trucks go by (which they do several times a day!), but the noise was usually a dull roar I could ignore. It didn’t keep me up at night, wake me up in the morning, or cause me trouble hearing my audio.

After my afternoon work, I started to think about dinner. I wasn’t in the mood for sushi (no, I’m not ill) and have figured out that Italian is a safe bet in the Balkans. A quick Google search later and I was at Ottimo, just off Studenski Trg (kitty corner from the ethnographic museum), on a very quiet side street. I was so happy to be comfortable sitting on a terrace at the end of September in just a tee shirt. The weather continues to be a blessing!


I ordered a glass of wine that seemed rather stingy in its portion (especially compared to last night) and perused the menu. The specials of the day were in Serbian only (thank you, Google Translate), but the menu had Italian, Serbian, and English. I was really surprised that I felt like lasagna. It’s just not something I order when I eat out and, in fact, I’m pretty sure the last time I had lasagna at a restaurant was at Gertie’s in Dawson City some six years ago! As it turned out, lasagna was a special of the day, 50% off, so I guess that was a sign from the universe!

The portion was insane (I ate about two thirds of it), with lots of meat and a decent amount of cheese, plus homemade noodles, Béchamel sauce, and a hearty tomato sauce. It was really good, but would have been excellent if the temperature had been consistent. Some bits were tepid at best and others way too hot. With the tip, dinner was just 800RSD (9.84CAD)! Wow! But, remember, that was a special of the day. I just got lucky. 🙂


I really should start on my packing tonight, but I can’t seem to face my suitcase. I will have plenty of time in the morning. I’ll breakfast here, pack, then go out to get a food and drinks for the bus ride before coming back for my bags (most shops are tiny and you don’t want to bring luggage in them if you don’t have to!). My final stop will be an exchange place to get some Euros.

Thus ends my urban Serbian idyll. It was very good! 😀

Belgrade to Sarajevo Bus Information

This morning, I went to the Belgrade bus station to get information on a bus to Sarajevo tomorrow. Their website (which has a very good English translation) put the only bus as being at 4PM with an arrival at 11PM. My host in Sarajevo said that a late arrival would not be a problem and he would arrange a transfer for me for 10 Euro (which I knew was a bit less than a legitimate taxi).

But I really did not want to arrive that late. For one thing, I have to leave my apartment by the late morning and the last thing I wanted was to have to figure out where to kill a few hours while dragging all my luggage. So I decided to go down to the bus station and see if there might be other buses that are not on their website for whatever reason. Like in Bulgaria, there are numerous carriers and the information isn’t centralised yet.

Based on my arrival at the Belgrade bus station, I expected that getting information would be frustrating and complicated because there didn’t seem to be a central point of information. Well, there was ample signage in English directing you to where to buy tickets! I went up to kiosk and asked the man if he spoke English. He haltingly replied, “15 or 16,” pointing in the direction he wanted me to go. There was no one at window 15, but there was at window 16 and he spoke fluent English. Now, yes, it would have been nice if they had an “English spoken here” sign on the kiosk window, but that was still good service! I cannot get over how eager Serbians are help.

The man at window 16 told me that there are morning buses, including one at 11:30, which was perfect. I could have a slow morning, pack, and then walk the 1KM to the bus station. He didn’t have more information than that for me, like if there’s a transfer or which bus station I would get to in Sarajevo. You see, there are two bus stations in Sarajevo. One is in the city, very near my apartment, but the other, Istočno Sarajaveo (East Sarajevo) is quite a bit out and near the airport. I would need the transfer from that one. I bought the ticket (2,510RSD or about 30CAD) and the clerk pointed to it to show me what platform to go to tomorrow.

When I got in some time later (I may have stopped at a cafe for a macchiato along the way and then for a to-go slice of pizza), I tried to get more information about my ride tomorrow. I was able to confirm from the ticket that I’m going to Istočno Sarajevo and so I was able to let my host know that I’m coming in around 7:30PM and definitely need the transfer. Yes, that’s an eight-hour bus ride to do 300KM… Apparently, the wait at the border is really long.

I got on Google and found a bus company that has buses from Belgrade to Sarajevo at 6:00, 9:45, and 12:30. Still nothing about the 11:30 trip!

I examined my ticket more closely and realised that it might have the name of a bus line on it. I popped that info into Google and voilà! I finally found some information on the 11:30 am bus from Belgrade to Sarajevo.

So all that to say, you can’t really rely on Google or a site like in the Balkans to give you all the answers. It’s worth it to go directly to the bus or train station to get the information in person.

Bosnia’s official currency is the Convertible Mark (KM), but the Euro has widespread use and research tells me not to bother getting any KM. So tomorrow, I will convert as many of my remaining dinars as I can into Euro. I’m glad to be going into a more “universal” currency. I was left with a handful of BGN that is now useless to me and hope that I won’t have as many dinar left. Since I have my bus ticket already, I’ll leave myself perhaps 200RSD for incidentals for the bus ride in case with have a rest stop on the Serbian side after buying myself snacks for the very long day ahead. I hope this bus has a bathroom… The ones to Nish and Belgrade didn’t!