On the Streets of Andalucia

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I fell in love with Spain when I first visited in 2009 on my very first trip abroad.  The people were friendly and laid back, the food was delicious, and the architecture was out of this world.  I knew next to nothing about travel at that time, but even then, I knew that Spain would be a place to go back to.

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My husband – who is a bit of an architecture and street photography junkie – suggested it as a Spring Break destination and it just felt right.  I was stoked to see an old favorite place with more experienced eyes, as well as explore some new parts of the country.

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On my first trip, I only made it to Barcelona and Madrid; this time, I had my heart set on the sunny south.  I wanted to see the enchanting remnants of Moorish architecture and wander the streets in search of new tapas.

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From Granada to Sevilla and back again, every twist and turn looked like something straight out of a storybook.  If you find yourself on the streets of Andalucia (and you certainly should), don’t be afraid to get lost.  That’s half of the magic.

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A Trusty Travel Companion

dsc_0176I’ll never forget my first trip abroad.  I had just turned 18, and although I had wanted to get out and see the world my entire life, I really had no clue what to expect.  I packed a huge suitcase full of ridiculous outfits that were hardly suitable for any of our plans and two travel journals (in which to chronicle my adventures in broken French and Spanish).  To be honest, I didn’t love that trip.  I was culture shocked by the overly forward French men, didn’t love the people in my group, and realized very quickly that carefully structured group tours  were not my jam.  Still, I learned a lot of unexpected lessons on that trip and my thirst for travel remained intact.

Fast forward to now, and I am still learning and growing with each trip we take.  One thing that has definitely improved is my packing skills.  I still would not consider myself an expert, but I’ve gotten better and better at knowing what to take along and what to leave behind.  This year especially, I’ve stumbled onto one handy little item that has been a life saver on multiple trips now:  the blanket scarf.

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These babies go for 10 lira (roughly $2.50) on the streets of Istanbul and are worth every penny (kuruş?).  I initially bought one because I was freezing one afternoon in Kadıköy and they looked really warm (which they are).  However, I’ve discovered that these bargain accessories are so much more than what meets the eye.

First of all, they’re great for plane rides.  We’ve been on many red eye flights, most of which have not provided blankets…and even when they do, they usually pale in comparison to my blanket scarves.  They are generally pretty water-resistant, so they have been great as makeshift towels or covers to protect things from getting wet in the rain.  I even used one to protect my 3rd degree sunburn from the heat in the Maldives.  Rain, shine,  or snow, these cheap rectangles of fabric have become my best friends.

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What strange things do you swear by on your travels?  I’d love to hear.

2016

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January

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February

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March

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April

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May

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June

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July

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August

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September

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October

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November

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December

What an incredible year I’ve had!  Looking back at each month made me realize how unbelievable it’s all been.  It also made me realize how quickly time is going by.  How has it already been another year?  How?

Here’s to hoping for an amazing 2017 for us all!

A Georgian Christmas

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We had a few days off for Christmas this year and decided to spend them in Georgia, a tiny country neighboring Turkey to the Northeast.  We had been meaning to visit for the longest time and Christmas seemed like the perfect opportunity.

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One interesting thing about Georgia is that they celebrate Christmas on January 7th rather than December 25th since the majority of the population is Orthodox Christian.  It kind of made it the perfect destination since the city was filled with the anticipation of Christmas, but everything was still open since it wasn’t officially the holiday yet for them.

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We knew we’d made the right choice as soon as we marched up to Passport Control AND WERE EACH HANDED FREE BOTTLES OF WINE.  No, I am not kidding.  What a welcome.  We were also struck by all of the beautiful Christmas lights throughout the city.

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Tbilisi is a remarkably eclectic city that is constantly juxtaposing the old with the new. Modernity effortlessly mingles with ancient traditions, something that can’t be said for many places.  There is an air of seediness as the streets are filled with beggars, casinos, and strip clubs, but there is also an air of welcome and safety.  The people are very friendly and happy to help strangers.  People look out for each other.

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I was totally charmed by this mysterious city and determined to learn more.  I signed up for the Free Walking Tour and it did not disappoint!  Nothing beats walking around the city for a few hours with a local, learning about history, culture, and all the best places to eat.  It is a must for anyone visiting the city.

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One of the most interesting parts of the tour for me was going inside an Orthodox church.  Instead of the rows of seats and stained glass windows, there is almost no lighting and absolutely no seating.  The walls are painted with religious scenes and dimly lit by candlelight.

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The country is one of the most religious in the world, with over 90% of the population identifying as believers according to our guide.  It’s an interesting statistic when you consider that the country was once part of the Soviet Union, which banned religion entirely.  Tbilisi was very fortunate, however, that when the Soviets took power, none of their churches were destroyed, which was not always the case.  Instead, they were preserved and put to use as storage buildings until the USSR collapsed in 1991.

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I was also stunned by our next stop, the beautiful Peace Bridge, which represents the peaceful connection between the past and the future.  It serves a symbol of hope for people that have endured a lot of war.

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Once across the bridge, you can take the cable car up to Narikala Fortress, which offers stunning views of the old part of the city.

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At the top of the fortress stands Kartlis Deda, The Mother of Georgia, watching over the city.  In one hand she holds a glass of wine; in the other, she holds a sword.  This is meant as both an invitation to strangers who come in peace and a warning for their enemies.
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Fun fact:  there are absolutely no guards or safety regulations at the fortress, so you can climb all the way up to the top at your own peril!

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The bent Georgian cross, representing Saint Nino

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One of our final stops on the tour took us back down and through the historic district to a hidden waterfall, which is often frozen in winter!

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In addition to a fascinating history and culture, Georgia is also home to some spectacular food and wine.  After trying it, I really don’t know why it isn’t a bigger speck on the foodie radar.  Everything I ate there was delicious, from spicy herbed potatoes to a variety of savory breads and pastries.  My personal favorite was a dish called khinkali, which consisted of big, delicious dumplings with various soupy fillings.  They were seriously incredible.  I need the recipe ASAP.

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Now about the wine.  I don’t even know if I can properly describe it.  Georgia has a vibrant wine culture that has been around for centuries, as the region is abundant with grapes. Interestingly, the Georgians have their own method for making wine, which is quite different than that of the Europeans.  The grapes are put in a giant clay pot, buried underground, and then fermented and filtered.

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It’s sweet, smooth, cheap, delicious, and EVERYWHERE.  Nearly every Georgian has their own family wine recipe and makes it themselves.  Needless to say, we got to sample several varieties and tried to take advantage of the good prices and generous baggage allowance we had (thanks, Turkish Airlines!).

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Even Wendy’s sells wine in Georgia.  Also, Bailey’s Frosties.

Even as I’m sitting back home writing this, I can’t fully wrap my head around Georgia.  It’s so curious, confusing, and alluring all at the same time.  As is often the case when I’m traveling these days, I feel the need to go back to get a better feel for the place.  I would love to see more of the Caucasus Mountains and the Georgian countryside.  Perhaps in warmer weather.

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If nothing else, I hope I can give a voice to this overlooked little country.  It’s affordable, beautiful, interesting, and there’s plenty of wine to go around.  It’s perfect for those who want something a little off the beaten path.

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Nothing in the world can replace Christmas at home with family, but when that’s thousands of miles away, Georgia is a pretty good alternative.

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Home is relative

20161009_133125.jpgIt changes all the time.

For example, this morning I was living in your arms.

By afternoon, I had taken up residence in cobbled streets beneath the sunlight.

Only the universe knows where I will stake my claim tomorrow.

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Savoring a Souvenir: Scotland Edition

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We finally broke down and had to eat this chocolate we picked up in Scotland and it was pretty much perfect.  I’m a sucker for lavender (as evidenced here and here) and this chocolate had just the right amount.  One of these days I’ll have to return to Scotland in the warmer months to see all of that lavender in action…and to get more of this chocolate.

Day 6: Glasgow

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Map of all the visitors at the Airbnb…we were the first from Turkey!

We spent the majority of our last day in Glasgow, though it wasn’t nearly long enough.

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After an epic breakfast (thanks to our Airbnb host!), we spent the  morning at the Kelvingrove Art Museum.  First of all, it’s free; second of all, they offer a huge variety of interactive exhibits, which I really loved.  I would love to see more museums with similar activities to help viewers engage with the art.

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We also visited the People’s Palace, where I saw an exhibit on pop art portraits.  Saw a portrait of Obama.  Felt instantly sad.

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For the last couple of hours, we simply wandered through the shopping district.  We stocked up on some goodies to take home (Shortbread cookies…Reese’s…pork products!) and picked up a couple of souvenirs.  We also stumbled upon a pretty cool street band.

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All too soon, we had to hop back in the car to catch our flight back to Turkey from Edinburgh.  I really didn’t feel like we did Glasgow justice…but I guess that just gives me an excuse to go back.

Scotland was such an incredible place!  We kind of planned the trip at the last minute and I’m so glad we did!  If you love friendly people, good food, rainbows, castles, dramatic views, and plaid, don’t miss out!

Day 5: Goodbye Skye, Hello Highlands

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We got up early once again on our last morning in Skye to try to hit the sights we’d missed the day before and to start the (very) long drive through the mainland highlands down to Glasgow.

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We first stopped to visit the Fairy Pools (not to be confused with the Faerie Glen), which was basically a ridiculously gorgeous series of little waterfalls at the foot of the mountains.  20161117_102534.jpg

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I imagine it’s beautiful to swim in in the summer.

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On the way off of the Isle, we toured through the impossibly beautiful Eilean Donan Castle. The family who bought and restored it still use it as a holiday home…what a place to vacation!

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Back in mainland Scotland, we passed through a beautiful area called Glen Coe, where we hit a snow storm!  I didn’t get many photos because it got dark quite fast and it was very foggy, but I can’t even describe how lovely the mountain pass looked surrounded in snow.  It was like a winter wonderland!  I know the slippery conditions and narrow roads had our friend who was driving on pins and needles, but the views were out of this world.  We proceeded to sing “Let It Go” obnoxiously while the snowflakes swirled around the car.

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It was an incredibly long drive and it was hard to leave the Isle of Skye, but we happily arrived in Glasgow late in the evening, where we enjoyed a fabulous hearty meal and rented a cool and quirky apartment just outside of the city.

Day 4: The Isle of Skye

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The Isle of Skye was truly one of the most magical places I’ve had the privilege to visit.  It seemed like the stuff of fairy tales.  Rolling green hills, waterfalls, mountains, rainbows, castles, forest – you name it, it was there.

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A lovely morning greeting in the parking lot by the trail.

We got out bright and early to start out with our hike to The Old Man of Storr.  It was an incredibly cold day with a bit of light rain, but we were determined not to let that stop us.  The views from both the bottom and the top were spectacular.

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Sheep!

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When we were about halfway up the trail, the most incredible thing happened.  Out of nowhere, huge, quarter-sized snowflakes started flurrying down on us.  At first, we were a bit worried we’d have to turn around before we go to the top, but it stopped as quickly as it had started and it was absolutely beautiful!

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The iconic rock formations at the top of the trail were much bigger than I expected!  To give you some perspective, I am also in the photo above.

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So green!

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We kind of just stood in awe of it all for a little while before we finally turned back around to continue to our next point of interest.

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Our next stop was a waterfall view point…and yes, that is a rainbow at the bottom.

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We then took an insane, winding mountain road that was pretty much one lane all the way up to Quiraing.  It was super windy…and when I say windy, I mean zero gravity windy.  The birds could not even fly!!  It was insane, but also pretty cool, especially when it pushed us along the trail.

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We stopped for lunch and were lucky enough to find a little brewery that had COFFEE, which I desperately needed at this point in the trip.  I also bought some tasty whiskey caramels.

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After fueling up, we drove through the Faerie Glen, which is aptly named because it definitely looks like the kind of place where fairies would live.  This photo does it no justice, but  it was one of my favorite stops on the trip.  So surreal.

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At this point, we were running out of daylight and trying to squeeze in a couple more stops before the sun set.  We made it out to coral beach, and while it wasn’t exactly beach weather, we all enjoyed the chance to stretch our legs and look at all of the strange colors of moss on the rocks.

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Our last stop for the day was this bridge at the bottom of the Cuillin Mountains.

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I really cannot believe we jammed so much into about ten hours.  It honestly still feels like it was a dream.  Every angle offered a dose of sensory overload.  It was such an amazing day!

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Day 3: Loch Ness

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After a good night’s sleep at Inverness, we hit the road to see if we could catch Nessie before the sun set!  The drive was absolutely beautiful, featuring tunnels of trees decked out in fall colors and plenty of sunshine.

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We also saw a ridiculous number of rainbows throughout our journey.

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On our way through Loch Ness, we visited Urquhart Castle, which had a fascinating, albeit depressing history.  We got the grand tour and the weather was honestly pretty great considering the season.  Our tour guide was hilarious.

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On the way out, we spotted a highland cow!  I love how furry they are.

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Our next stop was the adorable town of Fort Augustus, which was greener than green and full of rustic charm.  I fell in love with this Nessie sculpture!

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Oh, look.  Another rainbow.

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The views of the Loch were picture perfect.  Fun fact:  loch is just the Gaelic word for lake.

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Pretty fall colors and fabulous friends.

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After a hearty dinner (and a little Scotch whiskey!) at a local pub, we took off for our final destination for the night: the Isle of Skye.  We checked in to our cozy Airbnb, which reminded me of Clue for some reason.  I absolutely loved the plaid carpet!  It was the perfect place to pass the night chatting, snacking, and playing board games.