My thirst for exploration and discovery is unquenchable, no matter my age or how many countries I have visited. Curiosity runs through my veins and every chance I get to leave my hometown gets my blood pumping, whether I’m flying halfway across the world or driving to a town an hour away. Long-term or long-distance travel isn’t always a reality for me, so over the past couple of years I have been making efforts to explore my own backyard and take advantage of long weekends to get out of town. My husband and I love to take road trips together and have made our own tradition of taking one each year for our wedding anniversary. This year, we were drawn to Southern Alberta again. Our first destination: Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, spread over southwestern Alberta and southeastern Saskatchewan, the only interprovincial park in the country, an oasis of forest, lakes and hills rising up 600m from the surrounding prairies.
Over the course of six years, in pursuit of a personal travel goal, I traveled to 32 countries (some more than once), spent approximately 38 weeks abroad (not counting local trips), and spent thousands upon thousands of dollars. It was amazing, and exhausting, to say the least. On my 25th birthday I set a goal to travel to 30 countries before I turned 30, and on a four-week trip to Europe in September 2014, I achieved it. Yet two months after returning home, the itch was back. No matter how hard I ever try to return to a normal life, focus on saving money and relaxing, the wanderlust always comes back. So, on Boxing Day 2014, I booked a trip to Nicaragua.
Bulgaria is home to nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites – places in the world that are designated and protected by the United Nations as culturally and or physically special and significant. Two of these sites – Boyana Church and Rila Monastery – are easily doable as a daytrip from Sofia, which is exactly what my husband Dave and I did on our four-night stay in the capital.
Once in a while a country or a city will take you by surprise, and Bulgaria did just that for me. Aside from being a natural stopping point on our path from Budapest to Istanbul, Sofia had been on my radar before I ever even left Canada – since 2006 – thanks to my friend Christina who I met on a travel website and have been postcard pals with ever since. I didn’t know anyone who had traveled to Bulgaria, and read some less than enthusiastic words during my research. Many people suggested it was depressing, grey or boring. I know well enough not to trust those Internet doom-and-gloom folks, and I don’t like to go into a new place with many expectations one way or another, but Bulgaria felt like an undiscovered hidden gem.
Continuing on with our annual tradition of getting out of town for our anniversary, my husband Dave and I visited Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in our home province of Alberta, for our seventh anniversary last August. Like the year before, we wanted to stay close to home since we had a month long Europe trip just a few weeks later. Many people that we talk to here at home don’t know much about Dinosaur Provincial Park, or think that it is part of/near Drumheller, when it is two hours, or 169km, south east of the town that is home to the world famous Royal Tyrrell Museum. My dad had camped there previously and raved about it, and we were drawn by the prehistoric history and barren badlands landscape.
We awoke in Skopje, Macedonia in the ungodly hour between late night and early morning. It was pitch black outside and the streets were deserted. My head was in a fog and I was still unsteady on my feet. It’s a familiar feeling for anyone who has to get up in that in-between time and move. In our case, we were moving on to our next destination; Thessaloniki, Greece. More importantly, I was moving towards achieving a goal, the biggest undertaking of my life; traveling to 30 countries before the age of 30. Greece was it: #30.
Lake Ohrid is one of Europe’s deepest and oldest lakes, 940ft at its greatest depths and millions of years old, nestled amongst a mountainous region of the Balkans. The lake and the town it is named after are a Macedonian UNESCO World Heritage Site, yet a third of the shoreline lies in another country: Albania.
My husband Dave and I were spending a few nights in the town of Ohrid to catch a bit of downtime during our month in Europe, but we can never stay idle for very long. We had a rental car with us that we had picked up in Skopje and were delighted to find out that we could take it into Albania for a small extra fee. We decided to circumnavigate the entirety of the lake, about 100km, and get a very small taste of what Albania has to offer.
A short flight took us from Belgrade, Serbia to Skopje, Macedonia, a stopping point on our way to the small town of Ohrid, nestled on the shores of Lake Ohrid, one of the deepest and oldest lakes in Europe. Together the lake, town and surrounding region form Macedonia’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. Two-thirds of the shoreline is in Macedonia, and the rest lies in Albania.
Skopje is not known for being a conventionally attractive tourist destination, but its history and slight weirdness make up for that. The area has been inhabited since 4000 BC and has suffered many devastating earthquakes, most recently in July 1963. That quake decimated 75% percent of the town, which explains the hodge-podge of architectural styles accompanied by cranes and scaffolding all around. Skopje’s most famous name by far is the one and only Mother Teresa, born there in 1910 when it was still a part of the Ottoman Empire. Macedonia gained its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and Skopje is its capital.
One of my favourite things to do in Europe is take the train, no matter how long or short the journey. Book me onto an 8-hour flight and my mind fills with anxiety, but a train ride of the same length fills me with excitement; the satisfaction of slowly passing through countryside, crossing borders the old fashioned way, and staying firmly on the ground. The train from Budapest bound for Belgrade was nearly empty for the entire trip. We stopped at the Hungarian border, had our passports stamped, moved on for a few short minutes, and stopped again on the Serbian side of the border in Subotica. The border police seemed a little more tired, a little more weary, their faces a little more lined. Moments after we pulled into the station, the sky grew dark and exploded with rain. I grasped the deliciousness of the symbolism in that moment.
Three hundred and fifty days after our last month away in Europe, Dave and I were packing our bags again, going through the familiar motions and making the drive down the same stretch of highway to the airport, ready to embark on another month on the continent we love so much. This time, though, the trip carried serious significance. This would be the biggest trip of my life to date. This would be the one where I would finally achieve my goal, the purpose of my life for the past four and a half years; to travel to at least 30 countries before I turned 30 years old.
After three easy flights we touched down in Budapest, a city I’ve wanted to visit for years. We took the bus and then the metro into the historic centre. The second we emerged from the station I was stunned by the gorgeousness all around me. It’s common to be smitten with a place when you first see it, but this feeling held steady for our whole four days in Budapest, from the grandest buildings to flower pots lining the streets, from the great Danube and its bridges to multiple neon signs in the shape of teeth.