8 Helpful Tips for Traveling Europe with a Gluten Allergy

8 Helpful Tips for Traveling Europe with a Gluten Allergy

Traveling Europe with a gluten allergy does not have to be a daunting task. It just takes a little bit of extra planning and preparation beforehand. As an avid traveler, my first thought of traveling with a Gluten allergy was “omg, I’m not going to be able to travel and enjoy all the amazing foods that I love experiencing”. But I soon learned that it IS possible. It’s difficult, I’m not going to lie. But I think I figured out the system and I wanted to share some of my tips for all those who might avoid traveling out of fear of food allergies (not just gluten).

How I Noticed Signs of Gluten Intolerance

To make a long story short, about 2 years ago I developed a whole list of mysterious medical symptoms. I started having extreme joint pains, headaches, blurry vision, muscle cramping, fatigue, and sharp tingling and burning sensations in my hands, arms and legs. I live a pretty healthy lifestyle, working out since I was 15 and eating “right”, so this came out of nowhere for me.

It was a long 6 months straight of going to endless doctors appointment and undergoing just about every medical test and blood test in the book. I became depressed as I though I must be dying or something (I’m already a hypochondriac so this just made it a thousand time worse).

After spending $5000 out of my pocket, on top of my $300 monthly premium (thanks to our awesome US healthcare system), one doctor suggested an elimination diet (from gluten).

Fast forward 2 months later, after religiously restricting gluten from my diet, low and behold, the symptoms went away completely! Gluten, you bastard! I never underwent all the Celiac tests, so I’m not exactly sure if I have it (although it does run in my family). At that point I didn’t need to, I knew 100% that Gluten was the culprit. Fast forward 2 years, and I have never felt healthier!

I wanted to share some tips (through trial and error) and how I get by traveling Europe with a gluten allergy. It doesn’t have to be stressful if you’re fully prepared.

8  Helpful Tips for Traveling Europe with a Gluten allergy (or any food allergy for that matter):

1. Pack Snacks

If you have any friends with food allergies, you will soon realize that they ALWAYS carry snacks on them. Zip-lock bags are your friends. I never get on a flight without packing a few bags of goodies beforehand. My favourite in-flight snacks are rice cakes, gluten-free crackers, bananas, and cereal. Sometimes I bring peanut butter but it often gets confiscated, especially in US airports. However, it has gotten through security in several European airports, so it all depends. But a good rule of thumb is, stick to solids only. Sorry, that Nutella just won’t cut it!

2. Request special airline meals AT LEAST 24 HOURS in advance

This one is tricky and will only work on longer flights. Most European budget airlines don’t have this option at all, so be aware (or if they do, it will cost you an arm and a leg). For most intercontinental flights, CALL the airline AT LEAST 24 hours before your flight to make your requests. Ive made the mistake of requesting it online while I was signed into my United Mileage account. Unfortunately they didn’t get the memo and I was left without ANY food on an 8 hour flight. This has happened to me 3 TIMES! Although, the other 2 times I was given the first class meal, so I wasn’t complaining.

3. Stock up Locally

Gluten-free/Bio section in DM

Gluten-free/Bio section in DM

The first thing I do when I go to a new place is go to the local farmer’s market for fresh produce. It’s also a great way to help the local economy! I also look around for a DM (Drogerie Markt), they are located all over Europe. DM is a German based retail store that sells cosmetics, household items, travel size toiletries (bingo!), and bio and gluten-free snacks. DM is my go-to spot and I’m obsessed!

4. Gluten-free Restaurant Card (GAME CHANGER)

Croatian gluten-free restaurant card

Croatian gluten-free restaurant card

Discovering the gluten-free restaurant card was a complete game changer for me! It’s basically a nice, neat print out card for Celiacs to give to your waiter so they know what you can and cannot eat. It’s available in 54 languages and honestly has been a life-saver for me. Click here to find your desired language.

5. Learn the Lingo

In the event you misplace your gluten-free restaurant card, it’s smart to learn a few words in the local language regarding your allergy. If there is one phrase I make sure I remember, it’s how to say “gluten-free”.

Here are a few useful ones to remember:
Italian: Senza Glutine
Croatian: Bez Glutena
German: Gluten-frei
Spanish: Sin-Gluten
French: Sans Gluten

6. Cook your Meals

This is where Airbnb comes in! One of the main reasons I love Aribnb is that you can often cook all your meals, not only making it easier for those with food allergies, but saving you extra money by avoiding dining out.

Super quick meal I whipped up in Italy, with fresh spices from the host's balcony :)

Super quick meal I whipped up in Italy, with fresh spices from the host’s balcony 🙂

If I’m staying in a hotel with a mini fridge, I make sure to stock it up with salami, cheese, fruit, and smoked salmon. Even with no kitchen, there are ways to dine in and I definitely take advantage of them!

7. Gluten-Free Apps

Apps are an easy way to find gluten-free options while you’re traveling and I use them heavily! Three of my favorites are:

Find Me GF-allows you to search gluten-free restaurants and stores based on your location.

Mangiare SG-basically the same thing as Find Me GF but specific to Italy.

Google Translate-there is a feature where you can scan a whole group of words for translation (only available in a few language). I use this a lot translating ingredients on a package. Genius!

8. Visit the Pharmacy

Yes, you heard that right. In some countries, specifically Italy and Croatia, the government awards a stipend to those suffering from Celiac. For this reason, most pharmacies are stocked up on gluten-free items to accommodate these prescription holders. When all else fails and you’re having no luck finding GF snacks, look for the big green pharmacy sign. 

Worrying about food should not be on your mind when traveling Europe with a gluten allergy, there are so many amazing experiences to be had! You just need to be smart, change some habits, and be better prepared. It’s not the easiest thing, but once you get the hang of it you can get out there and explore with a better piece of mind, and not to mention a healthier overall well-being.

Do you have any more helpful tips to add for traveling with a food allergy? PLEASE SHARE! I’m always open to new suggestions! 🙂

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Traveling Europe with Gluten Allergy

Egypt: Top 10 Things To Know Before You Go

Egypt: Top 10 Things To Know Before You Go

Tourism in Egypt has dropped staggeringly since the Revolution in 2011. Cairo specifically was considered a war zone, and has suffered a steep decline in visitors since then, due to heavy travel warnings against unnecessary travel to Egypt in the capital and surrounding areas.

Despite the political unrest and turbulent past, Egypt has a mysterious allure that is hard to resist. The fact that Egypt is home to the ONLY remaining standing structure of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World is enough to catapult this country to the top of most bucket lists.

Before traveling to Egypt, please understand the fact that it IS a third world country. Don’t expect the usual modern luxuries you are accustomed to in the Western world. But that’s part of the adventure! Egypt is a place so different than most Westerners are used to, and perhaps that mystery might make it more desirable to most.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BAkqpUAOWzP/?taken-by=crazytravelista

If you’re thinking about traveling to Egypt, I HIGHLY recommend going with an organised tour group. I had my reservations about going to Egypt to be honest, but I definitely felt more safe doing it with a tour instead of alone. My friend Carey and I chose to go with TopDeck Travel and it was such a great decision. Not only did we feel more safe going in a group, but we were given a local tour guide who knew the ins and out of his country. This really helped put us at ease and relieved some of the stress we had beforehand, travelling alone as 2 females.

After my unforgettable trip to Egypt, I put together a list of things to expect when traveling to Egypt for the first time, including helpful tips to make you feel more prepared. Here are the top 10 things I wish I knew before travelling to Egypt for the first time:

1. You Cannot Drink the Tap Water

tap water photo

This may seem obvious, but it is very important that travellers are aware that the water standards are extremely below standards here and most often, water is not properly filtered, resulting in insufficient removal of harmful organisms from the treated water. Drinking the water WILL cause diahhrea, so be careful!

It is also not advisable to brush your teeth with tap water in certain areas of Egypt, including Dahab. Buy bottled water and use that to brush your teeth. We were told by our local guide that it was okay to brush our teeth with tap water in Cairo, but not so in Dahab. Depending on the region you’re in, be sure to ask if it’s ok to use tap water for brushing your teeth. You do not want to make that mistake and pay the consequences.

2. The Driving is CRAZY

The one word that comes to mind when trying to explain the traffic situation in Egypt is “clusterfuck”. There is no speed limit and there are no traffic lights in most places. This equates to some potentially dangerous driving conditions. No traffic lights also means lots of HORNS being blown all at once. Before we went, we were told by a fellow traveller who had just been to Cairo to stick our cell phones out of the window and record the noise. It seemed like a weird request, but we soon realized why. The traffic noise is unlike anything we had ever heard. This also made it difficult to get some sleep in our hotel since it was next to a busy road.

Another thing to be aware of is that there are no crosswalks. With the help of our tour guide, we all linked our hands and just made our way across the busy street. It was very frightening, I’m not going to lie. But they will stop for you, they are used to it. So when it comes to crossing the street, you just have to go! Trust me.

3. Carry Toilet Paper and Hand Sanitizer with You at ALL times

Wait, what? I must reiterate the fact that it is a third world country, so sanitary standards are markedly lower. Most public bathrooms do NOT provide toilet paper (or soap). Be prepared and pack it in your bag, you won’t regret it.

As mentioned above, most public bathrooms do not have soap readily available. In my experience there, there were only a handful of times where there was soap in the bathroom. If available, it was bar soap which everyone else was touching. If you’re a germaphobe like me, I passed on the bar soap and opted for my hand sanitizer.

3. Buy Bug Spray and WEAR it at All Times

A warm environment festers bugs, it’s inevitable. No one warned me about the bugs and I learned the hard way, with “battle scars” to prove it. Hey, I like to call it my Egyptian souvenir.

mosquitos photo

4. Bring a Hat, Wear Sunscreen, and Drink Plenty of Water 

Heat stroke is a major concern in Egypt during the summer months. Protecting yourself from the sun and hydrating yourself is essential in order to stay healthy while travelling here. The last thing you want is a trip to the emergency room due to heat stroke. It happened to me while travelling in Spain years ago, believe me it’s not fun!

5. Respect the Culture/Religion

Egypt is a predominately Muslim country with a conservative culture. Be sure to respect the local culture by dressing appropriately. For the ladies, this means covering your arms and legs in public places. It’s not mandatory for tourists, but you’re in their country, please do your best to respect their traditions. It’s your choice, but if you do decide to dress more provocatively, expect to get some unwanted attention. Certain areas are more relaxed as in the Red Sea resort towns, including Dahab, where beachwear is the norm. Our tour guide advised us that it was okay to visit the Great Pyramids in more casual attire. However, on a dinner cruise we were advised to cover up. It all depends where you are, so make sure to stay informed in order to remain respectful.

6. Don’t Expect High Accommodations Standards

Leave all your luxurious standard expectations at the door. A 4-star hotel in Egypt is not the same as a 4-star hotel in the Western world. Going in with high expectations will only leave you disappointed. In Cairo, we had to move hotel rooms a total of 4-5 times. Either the electricity didn’t work at all or the AC was broken. There were ants in some rooms, and in one room there was no shower head at all. This became the norm there, but it was definitely an experience. The good news is that prices are a lot lower than we are used to, so accommodations won’t break the bank.

7. Check for Egypt Visa Requirements

passport photo

Visas are required for ALL visitors to Egypt. The Egyptian Embassy recommends that all visitors to Egypt obtain a visa in advance of arrival. However, as an American, you are allowed to purchase a 30-day tourist visa at the airport, costing $25 USD. The process was pretty straightforward and quick. Make sure to check your country-specific requirements well in advance to avoid any complications or denial into the country.

8. Alcohol and Ramadan 

wine photo

Ramadan is a holy month in the Muslim religion in which a strict fast is observed for a whole month from dawn until sunset. This fast includes no food and NO WATER for 30 days. The month is intended to install self-discipline through refraining from bad behavior, bad thoughts, smoking, and is marked by lots of daily prayers. Observing Ramadan once yearly is one of the “Five Pillars of Islam” an is compulsory in the Muslim religion.

Being in Egypt during Ramadan was such an eye-opening experience to witness first hand. The self-restraint and dedication that the people have to their religion was just so inspiring and honorable. To see these people going about their every day work lives in the intense heat without even thinking to take a drink was just incredible. We even witnessed small 10 and 12 year old boys firmly participating and we were just so impressed at their willpower.

That being said, don’t expect to go to Egypt during Ramadan and get wasted. As mentioned above, it’s a Muslim country, meaning they do not readily serve alcohol in most places during Ramadan, with the exception of some touristy places. Most places, we were told, did not have a license to serve alcohol during the holy month. In Dahab, however, we were informed by our local tour guide that there were 1 or 2 liquor stores where we could purchase wine/beer/liquor and bring it to the restaurant to consume at no extra charge. Make SURE to check with them first, as you do not want to get anyone in trouble and you definitely do not want to disrespect the local customs/traditions.

9. You Might See Some Guns, but Don’t be Afraid

During our journey from Cairo to Dahab, we had to leave at 4am to be escorted by a military convoy. This is standard procedure for tour groups in Egypt to assure our safety. We also witnessed some snipers on the rooftop while we were eating dinner one night. A little alarming I must say. But again, it is for our own protection.

10. Expect to See Some EPIC Stuff

No one prepared me for the epic-ness of the Great Pyramids of Egypt. As I mentioned before, the Great Pyramids of Egypt are the ONLY remaining standing structures of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. How freaking cool is that?

Great Pyramids of Giza

I couldn’t resist. When in Egypt 🙂

Did you know that the Giza pyramid is made of 3 MILLION blocks? Mind blown. You can’t really appreciate the grandeur of these structures until you are standing right in front of them, with your jaw stuck to the floor.

https://www.instagram.com/p/5DFVrOOW5k/?taken-by=crazytravelista

Final Thoughts on Egypt

After reviewing this list, it may seem like all negative points, but it was not intended to be. It was just intended to make the traveler aware of what to expect so a complete culture shock is not as overwhelming.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BAqNM-LOWwT/?taken-by=crazytravelista

Egypt is like a whole different world, in a good way! People only dream of visiting here, and I was so fortunate to finally get to see it with my own eyes. The ancient history here will blow you away and the hospitable culture will warm your hearts. Egypt has been one of the most unusual places I have ever visited and it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I will treasure forever.

Is Egypt safe? That’s a never-ending question with a revolving answer. My only advice is to do your research, check national travel warnings, speak to those who have recently visited, and make an informed decision based on these factors. Traveling to Egypt was one of the best decisions I have made, and something I will always remember.

Travel Insurance for Egypt

I would definitely recommend travel insurance, especially when traveling somewhere like Egypt. My favorite travel insurance that I have been using for the past 4 years is World Nomads. I have made 3 claims so far and have been fully reimbursed for all 3 without any hassle. I HIGHLY recommend them.

Here is my more detailed review of World Nomads if you’re interesting in their coverage.

Do you have any more advice for traveling to Egypt? Do you think it’s safe to travel to Egypt? I want to hear your thoughts!

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10 Things to Know before you go to Egypt

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2015 Top 7 Travel Surprises (+ 2016 Preview)

2015 Top 7 Travel Surprises (+ 2016 Preview)

2015 was a crazy year in terms of travel. I visited 17 countries, 9 of which new countries I had never been. I never expected to do so much travelling, but I can honestly say it was the best travel year of my life! I decided to put together a list of the top 7 travel surprises of 2015. These are all places that far exceeded my expectations and shocked me/blew me away. I have also included a list of my (tentative) travel plans for 2016. Cheers to a new year of travel!

1. Ljubljana, Slovenia

Charming Ljubljana, Slovenia

Charming Ljubljana, Slovenia

Never had I before experienced a capital city so charismatic as Ljubljana. I wasn’t expecting much going into the Slovenian capital, as I usually don’t care too much for most capital cities these days. I’d rather visit a smaller, more unique village on the outskirts. However, Ljubljana blew me away! Ljubljana had a small town vibe indeed. The one word that comes to mind when I think of Ljubljana is charming. It was an eclectic mix of elegant/classy and bohemian/hippy, if that makes sense. The cafe culture was alive outside and it was almost impossible not to sit down at one of the trendy cafes overlooking the river. With only 1 day there, it wasn’t enough and I hope to go back soon to enjoy it more.

2. Interlaken, Switzerland (aka “Narnia”)

 

The ultimate winter wonderland in Interlaken, Switzerland

The ultimate winter wonderland in Interlaken, Switzerland

With only a short amount of time in Switzerland, we had a lot on our lists of things to see. But when traveling, sometimes you realize that plans don’t always work out the way you would like. Me and my friend Carey planned to see Jungfrau and/or Harder Kulm, yet due to the heavy snowfall, the visibility was slim to none and these activities never happened. We were a bit disappointed, to say the least, as the only 2 things we came there to see were closed. So we decided to take a paper map and explore the city. Well, we got lost and ended up walking through a park in the middle of a snow storm. We were literally in the middle of nowhere, with nothing in sight except for white powdery snow. At one point, a man on a horse rode by covered in a robe (a sort of “black knight”)and we looked at each other like, is this real life? We played in the snow and had numerous photo shoots, just the 2 of us. Something so simple brought us so much joy and it ended up being our favorite part of the trip. You know what they say, sometimes no plans are the best plans.

3. Israel and Palestine

Culture shock in Israel

Culture shock in Israel and Palestine

It was surreal to be able to stand on the same ground where Jesus once stood and to see his birthplace. The whole visit to Israel seemed like a dream and it’s something I have wanted to do my whole life. And I can honestly say that I experienced the biggest culture shock in all of my travels to date visiting this area. To see young military personnel walking around with guns was something very new to me, yet it’s a normal way of life over there. Also, the clash of multicultural people within the city walls of Jerusalem who were all living harmoniously together was incredible to see. If only those walls could speak. It was truly an eye-opening experience and I’m so glad I was able to witness it. Another huge bucket list item was also checked off for me here-floating in the Dead Sea!

YO MAY ALSO LIKE: Highlights of the Dead Sea and Masada Tour in Israel

4. Cappadocia, Turkey (aka “Mars”)

Cappadocia

Cappadocia, aka Mars

If you’ve ever been to or seen pictures of Cappadocia, I think you can agree that it is like somewhere from a different planet. The landscape is like no other place on earth and the memories made there will last forever. From eating in a local family’s house sitting on the floor, to watching the famous hot air balloons rising above the land at sunrise, these are some memories I will never forget.

5. Rovinj, Croatia

streets of Rovinj, Croatia

The picturesque streets of Rovinj, Croatia

It’s no secret that I’m obsessed with Croatia, but visiting Rovinj catapulted this obsession to a whole other level. The fact that I waited so long to visit this area baffles me. The streets of Rovinj were some of the most picturesque streets I have ever seen. The mixture of Croatian, Italian, and German languages spoke in this city really surprised me, until I learned some of the history behind it. The architecture especially had a strong Italian influence and at times I forgot I was in Croatia. How could I not like a city that felt like a mixture of Croatia and Italy, my 2 favourite countries! If you haven’t been to Rovinj yet, you’re really missing out on a hidden gem of Croatia!

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: Top 5 Reasons to Visit Croatia NOW

6.Hallstatt, Austria

Hallstatt, Austria in winter

The unreal village of Hallstatt, Austria

This is a place I had been dreaming to go ever since I saw pictures that actually made me think this place was fake due to its stark beauty. Usually when I give myself high expectations I am let down, 9 out of 10 times. But this wasn’t one of those times! Hallstatt might be the most beautiful/quaint/cute small village I have ever seen. The fact that it is set on a breathtaking lake just magnifies its beauty. Visiting Hallstatt was also very special since I went on my birthday and also because I’m half Austrian. Hallstatt definitely did not disappoint.

7.Neuschwanstein Castle

Neuschwanstein Castle in winter

Feeling like a princess at the fairytale Neuschwanstein Castle

If you’ve ever traveled in Europe, you come to realize that extravagant castles appear to be the norm there. Once you’ve seen a dozen, you start to become immune to their grandeur. However, Neuschwanstein Castle is the epitome of a fairytale, and in my opinion it was the most spectacular castle I’ve ever seen. This was also part of my birthday trip so it was extra special. But when I arrived, it almost didn’t happen. Due to the weather, the lookout bridge with the best view of the castle was closed. But of course that didn’t let it stop me. I jumped over the fence and decided to go anyway, as many others decided as well. As a tried to take the “easy route” against my boyfriend’s wishes, I slipped on ice ad fell hard on my left shoulder. I then grabbed the bottom of the fence with my right arm, as my feet were dangling off the mountain. My boyfriend ran to my rescue and grabbed me by my left shoulder to help me up. The rest of the trip I could barely move my arm, but it was well worth it for the amazing views! I certainly felt like princess on my birthday.

Where Am I going in 2016?
That’s a very great question! So far, I only have a short trip to Reykjavik, Iceland and Bergen, Norway booked for Winter 2016. The rest is up in the air for now! However, I have a tentative plan that I hope will get put into full effect. Here it goes:

Spring 2016 wish list:

  • Portugal
  • Croatia
  • Italy

Summer 2016 wish list:

  • Latvia
  • Estonia
  • Finland

Fall 2016 wish list:

  • Norway fjords

2016 “maybes”:

  • Morocco
  • South Africa
  • South America
  • Bulgaria

I can’t afford to go to all these place, so I will probably pick just one or 2 out of this category. It’s such a hard choice!

*As with most travelers, plans can always change and new destinations will be chosen last-minute (which is what happened with Israel and Egypt last year!)

So, here’s to not knowing exactly what my plans are and the fun part of figuring that out. Happy New Years to everyone and I’ll see you in 2016!

WHAT WERE YOUR 2015 TOP TRAVEL SURPRISES? AND WHERE WILL YOU BE HEADED IN 2016? DO TELL!

Unexpected Culture Shock in Albania: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Unexpected Culture Shock in Albania: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

There isn’t a word that exists to accurately describe Albania. Certain words that come to mind include chaotic, unorganized, unique, beautiful, and crazy. Albania is “different”. In fact, it’s definitely the most different European country I have ever visited. I can admit fully that Albania gave me the biggest culture shock I’d ever experienced before in Europe. That is something I certainly was not expecting. Albania is the Egypt of Europe, there I said it.

Why I chose to visit Albania?

My best friend recently moved to Durres, Albania. I must admit, I had to look on a map to figure out where exactly Albania was. Albania is located in Southeast Europe and lies along the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. When I realized it shared the same seas with Croatia, Italy, and Greece, my 3 favourite countries, I was more than eager to visit this lesser known Balkan country.

Hot to get to Albania? 

After extensive research, I found that the easiest way to get to the Albanian Riviera was to fly into Corfu, Greece and then take a one hour ferry to Sarande. The cost of the ferry ticket was 23.80€ during peak season and the company I used was Ionian Cruises. The other option is to fly into Tirana, and then take a bus down to Sarande, taking anywhere from 5-8 hours.

My “go-to” booking site for flights is Skyscanner…I swear by them! You can start searching below ♥

(Full disclosure: This little search box contains an affiliate link, which means I receive a small commission if you make a purchase using this link, at no extra cost to you. Yay!).


Ksamil Beach, Albanian Riviera

Ksamil Beach, Albanian Riviera


The Good

The Albanian Riviera

The Albanian Riviera is situated in the perfect location, where the Ionian and Adriatic Seas meet, explaining why the water is so gorgeous and colorful. After seeing a handful of beautiful Google photos, I decided this is exactly where I wanted to go.

Sarande

Sarande is a popular seaside town on the Albanian Riviera and is a great base for exploring other nearby destinations. Although it is a great starting base, I’m going to be honest and say it was a little disappointing. The town itself is lined with several hotels, bars, and restaurants, but it lacked the authentic appeal I had hoped for and seamed a bit commercialized. There were many fast food restaurants and bars, but not too many options when it came to sit-down restaurants. Furthermore, the food was mediocre at best, as I will touch on below. That being said, Sarande flaunted some attractive views over the waterfront during sunset and deserves a short visit.

 

Sarande Waterfront, Albania

Ksamil Islands

Ksamil village is a group of 3 islands which lie about 15 km south of Sarande and are very popular (translate: overcrowded) amongst locals during the summer. However, it is easy to see why as it boasts some of the most deep bluish green waters I have ever seen. Ksamil beach is lined with fluffy white sand starkly contrasted with the turquoise water in the backdrop, reminiscent of the Caribbean. For a quick moment, I forgot where I was. Who knew that Albania had some of the most BEAUTIFUL beaches I had ever seen? Consider mind blown. 

Ksamil islands, Albania

The main beach in Ksamil is very pretty, and super crowded. Meaning, if you don’t get there early, there will be no more sun chairs available. The good news? You can travel by small boat to the small nearby islands for a different scene. For a mere 500 LEK roundtrip ($4) you can hop on a small motor boat and get dropped off at the island of your choice. You must arrange with the driver on a pick up time to take you back.

The colours of Ksamil

The colours of Ksamil #nofilter

We spent most of our time lounging around one of the smaller islands, although I don’t know the name of it unfortunately (we just pointed and said “take us there”). The island was mostly rocky, and it wasn’t the ideal place to sunbathe. However, the water was so warm and calming that we spent most our time there swimming and playing around in the sea. There are no bathrooms or food on this island, so keep that in mind. There was a man and his daughter going around selling fresh fruit in case you fancied a snack.

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: Proizd Island: the Secluded Croatian Paradise You’ve Been Looking For

Syri Kalter

Syris Kalter, aka the “Blue Eye” as it is known locally, is a natural phenomenon located about 20km east of Sarande. The Blue Eye forms a blue portal-like hole and is supplied by an underwater natural spring. The depth of the Blue Eye remains a mystery, but there are documented reports of divers reaching around 50 meters in depth.

Syri Kalter, aka the "Blue Eye" in Albania

Syri Kalter, aka the “Blue Eye”

The water at Syri Kalter is frigid, as in the coldest water I have ever felt in my life. The water hurt my legs when I tried to stand in it for just a few seconds, so I passed on this one. Surprisingly, there were several brave divers jumping into the Blue Eye and quickly exiting. Enter at your own risk! The Blue eye is something very unique and I recommend a half day trip here to see it for yourself. There is a restaurant with a great view of the lake and bathroom facilities on site.

View from the restaurant at Syri Kalter, Albania

Albania is one of the Cheapest European Countries You Will Ever Visit

Albania was one of the cheapest, if not the cheapest, country I have ever visited. The food was cheap, the busses and taxis were cheap, and the clothes were cheap. I paid 650 LEK (a little over $5) for seafood risotto in the touristy port of Sarande, so this was even on the expensive side. A fancy margarita on the promenade cost 400 LEK (about $3.25). In Duress, it was even cheaper. For a fancy dinner with an appetizer, fresh fish, and a few glasses of wine, it cost about 1000LEK ($8).

Great for Extended Stay

Since it is so cheap, Albania is great for backpackers or even digital nomads who want to set up shop somewhere for a few weeks/months. If you’re looking to cut back on spending for a bit, or if you need to escape the Schengen for visa reasons (Albania is not part of the EU or the Schengen zone), Albania is the place to go.

It’s Not Too Touristy

I don’t personally know even one person from back home who has been to Albania. In fact, almost everyone I told I was visiting Albania responded with either “Why would you want to go to Albania?”, or “Where is Albania?”. Except for the local Balkan people in Ksamil beach and Sarande, Albania was almost completely void of tourists. I didn’t encounter ONE English speaking tourist my whole time in Albania. It has yet to be corrupted by mass tourism, and I don’t see that happening in the near future either. Translation: if you’re thinking about visiting, now is the perfect time to go.

 

The Bad

Public Transportation

The public transportation in Albania is TERRIBLE. I am going to say that Albania hands-down has the worst public transportation system I have ever experienced in my life. Actually there is no “system”. Yes there are busses, and frugons (think mini vans) that take you places, but don’t expect there to be any order or structure to anything.

There are no timetables, there is no air conditioning, and there are no marked bus stops. The only way we were able to take busses was by asking locals. We went into shops and asked anyone we could when the next bus was coming and where to wait for it. Sometimes the next one wasn’t coming for an hour and we would have to wait on the side of the road for that long because we didn’t want to miss the next one.

And when you do finally get on a bus, expect to be piled in there like sardines, with no elbow room whatsoever. There is no structure, order, or organization to Albanian public transportation. Period. This was made perfectly clear to me when I went into a bus agency in Durres and asked for a timetable, to which I was told “We don’t have, this is not your country”.  Wow, ok. I get the point. Sorry for asking, dude.

Power Outages are More Common than You Think

Several times during my trip to Albania, the power went out in restaurants and in the apartment. Sometimes it would last a few seconds, and sometimes for several minutes. No one seemed to make a big deal about it, leading me to believe this was quite common in Albania.

Expect to See Some Trash

If dirty streets bother you, you probably won’t want to go to Albania. I was surprised to see the abundance of trash lining the streets, even in the more developed areas. There was literally trash everywhere. Albania is not very developed yet, so don’t let this alarm you. This is where Albania really reminded me of Egypt the most.

Language Barrier

Out of every country I have ever visited, I can say that Albania was the hardest to find anyone who actually spoke English. I am in Albania, I get it, you don’t need to speak my language in your country. I am not that ignorant or demanding to expect that, and that’s perfectly understandable. But as a visitor, it made it extremely difficult to communicate anything we needed. Your best bet? Look for a young local, as they are more likely to speak English.

The Food

I hate to say this, but I was a bit disappointed with the food in Albania. I thought with such close proximity to culinary havens such as Italy, Croatia, and Greece that the food would be outstanding. I put it under the “bad” category mainly because the food was so unpredictable. The food in Sarande completely disappointed me. I had some salty risotto, some bland risotto, and the worst gelato I have ever tasted. I took a bite and threw it away, it was that bad.

In Durres, however, I had some amazing gelato and some authentic Albanian stuffed peppers that were out of this world tasty. In Ksamil, I had some of the best grilled sea bass I had ever tasted. That being said, I never knew what I was going to get. I could get one of the best meals of my life, or the worst. C’mon Albania, get it together.

The Ugly

Ok, here is where shit really gets real. Sorry, but there is about to be some cursing going on in the next few minutes, you have been forewarned. With travel comes adventure, and sometimes you are faced with unpredictable moments. But that’s part of the thrill that’s so alluring, don’t you think? Everything about Albania seemed a bit crazy to me. However, there were 2 times where I actually said WTF. Here’s why…

Story 1: Crazyness.

When leaving Durres to catch my 7am bus to Montenegro (which actually ended up being 7:30am because the local told me differently. But hey, I didn’t actually expect the bus schedule to be accurate anyway with my experience), it was pouring down rain as I entered a taxi with an older driver. As we approached the bus station (they actually have one in Durres surprisingly), the bus driver was standing outside and my taxi driver accidentally side-swiped his body and broke off his mirror. The bus driver forcefully fell and skid in the rain. Holy shit, did he just hit him? Next thing I know, the bus driver gets up, dusts himself off, and approaches the taxi. He opened the passenger door, started screaming intensely in Albanian at the old man, and then got inside and started PUNCHING the driver uncontrollably. The old man fought back and things were getting heated up front. Meanwhile, I’m in the back horrified and shocked and just want to get the hell out of there, but I don’t. I sit there and watch the show. Not because I wanted to, but because my luggage was in the trunk and I was afraid the taxi driver would drive away with my stuff, just to get rid of the bus driver. My heart was pounding, my palms were sweating, and the whole car was shaking as they were throwing fists and yelling. Some elbows were actually coming into the back seat as my eyes widened in horror. Fuck, get me out of here! Finally, another man came from outside and grabbed the bus driver and pulled him out of the car and the fight stopped. I grabbed my luggage and got onto the bus as quickly as possible. You know what was really awkward? That same angry bus driver punching the poor old man taxi driver was now driving my bus to Montenegro. Please don’t have road rage, please don’t have road rage, please don’t have road rage. Thankfully, I got to Montenegro safe and without incident. The funny thing was that when I got off the bus, I saw that the bus driver had a huge welt on his eye and it was almost completely swollen shut. Oh what a lovely experience.

Story 2: Unexpected adventure that could have turned out bad. Do NOT try this at home kids.

So we decided to take the bus to Syri Kalter one afternoon. After wasting time finding a bus that actually would take us there from Sarande, we were on our way. The bus dropped us off in the middle of nowhere in front of a dirt road, to which the driver pointed. Ok, I guess this is where we go? We saw signs saying Syri Kalter 2km. To make a long story short, when it came time to leave, there were no busses going back. Shocker. We walked along the road in the sweltering heat as the daylight began to fade. Oh crap, we don’t want to be left here in the middle of nowhere, especially when it gets dark. We started walking back to where the bus dropped us off, hoping another one would magically appear in the distance. But literally, we were in the middle of the forest, with nothing around. As the sun began to set, we had to make a choice. We looked at each other, and said, fuck it we have no choice. So, hitchhiking it is! Neither of us had ever done it before, and it always seems to end up bad in movies. Don’t be the stupid blonde that gets into to car, don’t do it! But hey, desperate times call for desperate measures. So, nervously and hesitantly, up went our fingers. What are we doing? Fuck. A few cars passed with no response. Crap, this is going to be harder than we thought. C’mon, we are 2 innocent stranded girls who just want to get back home. We were getting a bit concerned as we entertained the fact that we might end up sleeping in the forest. Nooooo, that can’t happen. Someone will stop, right? After some anticipation, we finally had a car drive by with loud music, and they slammed on the brakes. Yes! It was a bunch of local young Albanians who spoke some English and who were on their way North to Tirana. But Sarande is 30 minutes out of the way. Crap. After explaining our situation and after offering cash to take us there, they persistently refused, saying they would take us for free! What? That’s awesome. There are still some good people in this world. We had a good feeling about them, so we got in and were on our way, listening to Albanian music and learning some new Albanian words (bad words of course). They got a kick out of us repeating them aloud. We got really lucky that we safely made it back to Sarande. It could have been way worse. I would like to note that I do not endorse hitchhiking, but like I said before, sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures. Lesson learned.

Other Unusual/Random Things I Noticed in Albania

  • Any time we told someone we were from America, they seemed shocked and asked, “Why would you come to Albania? They couldn’t seem to understand. Literally, everyone had that same reaction.
  • There is no concept of personal space. When you go into a store, everyone runs in and races to  the counter to be served. To make sure that no one can get in front of them, they make sure there is no space between them and the person in front of them. I witnessed this several times and once this young man had to turn around and basically tell the man hovering over him to back off.
  • People will stop their car in the middle of the street and run into a nearby store. This happened on a main road while we were riding a bus. We had to wait about 4-5 minutes and the bus driver had to actually get out and track the man down. Some unpleasant words were exchanged and we were on our way.

 

TIPS

  • Not one place in Albania accepted credit cards. They aren’t that advanced yet, so expect to pay in cash and leave the plastic at home.
  • Pay in LEK only, not Euros. Locals will try to rip tourists off by charging them in Euro, but the exchange rate is much better when using LEK. They will be adamant about it, but tell them you live there and you only have LEK. They will accept it! Trust me.
  • Don’t rely on public transportation if you need to be any place at a specific time, such as for catching a flight or ferry. Take a taxi instead, they are not that expensive. You can also bargain with them before you accept the ride. Or if you dare, rent a car to see more of the landscape in a short amount of time and to bypass the stress of public transport.
  • Try to find accommodation on airbnb.com. It’s extremely cheap and you can get your own apartment for similar prices as a hotel. For 3 nights, my friend and I stayed a few minute walk to the center and paid $57 each, including all the taxes and fees. Use my coupon code for $20 off your first booking with airbnb.
  • You can buy a local SIM for data at Vodafone for $6-10 depending on how many GBs you need. This definitely came  in handy when I needed to use my maps for navigation.

Would I Ever Go Back to Albania?

ABSOLUTELY. Although this article might sound more negative than positive, Albania was charming in its own way. It was weird, wacky, unconventional, surprising, and quirky. But that is also what was so appealing about it. I was constantly on the edge of my seat, not knowing what to expect next, and that’s exactly the spontaneity I love about traveling. Albania is beautiful, non-touristy, the people are helpful and nice, and its extremely cheap. Despite the crazy adventures I experienced, I actually felt safe the whole time. Although the taxi encounter scared me a bit, they weren’t trying to harm me in any way, and I knew that. Overall, I felt safe in Albania, even walking around the streets at night. I realized there is so much more to explore and I have just cracked the surface of Albania’s weirdness. Until next time Albania. Stay Different.

 

MY TOP 5 RECOMMENDED TRAVEL GEAR

THAT I TAKE ON ALL MY TRAVELS:

1.Sony Alpha 6000 Mirrorless Camera: I made the switch from my huge DSLR and I wouldn’t go back. It’s light, compact, and takes amazing photos!

2. Sony 10-18mm Wide Angle Zoom Lens: this wide angle lens is the key to landscape shots. I use this lens more than the original and am super happy with it. It’s not cheap, but super worth it if you want to get those special nature shots. Honestly, I would purchase the Sony alpha 6000 camera body only and save up for this lens to go with it.

3. E Bags Packing Cubes: the biggest life changer to keep me packing light! This is my biggest travel gear obsession and I have NO idea how I traveled without them before.

4. LifeProof NUUD Waterproof Case (iPhone 6): this helps protect my phone from water, sand, dirt, and the numerous drops that incur while I travel. I love it!

5. GoPro Hero 4 Session: I am a proud GoPro ambassador and obsessed with GoPro selfie pics if you didn’t notice! (I have recently upgrade to the Hero 5, but this is the one I used in all my 2016 photos). It’s super small, compact, and easy to travel with. Plus it’s so much fun to use! 🙂

Disclaimer: this post contains affiliate links, which means I receive a super small commission if you make a purchase using these links, at no extra cost to you. I only recommend products that I have used before on my own and that I truly love 🙂

Have you had similar experiences traveling in Albania, good or bad? I want to hear your thoughts!

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How Vis, Croatia Captured My Heart

How Vis, Croatia Captured My Heart

After a life-changing sailing trip on the Adriatic coast one year ago, I knew I had to return to this captivating country. What attracts me to Croatia is not just the delectable food, the fascinating history, the laid-back culture, the crystal clear waters, or the people. It’s about the way Croatia makes me feel. And for that very reason, I was extremely eager to get back to one of my favourite countries in the entire world! For my next trip there, I decided to visit the island of Vis.

Why Vis?

While doing research on which Croatian island I should visit next, I remembered a place called Vis that a local had mentioned. After google search upon google search, I didn’t seem to find much information about it besides some basic demographic statistics. Well, how is that going to help me with my decision? But then I stumbled across something very interesting. Tourists were not allowed on the island of Vis prior to 1989, as Vis was the site for the military base for the Yugoslav National Army! I also learned that Vis is the farthest island from the Croatian mainland and the least developed, resulting in even less tourism. That’s all I needed to hear, I was sold!!

After a pleasant 3 hour ferry ride, I had arrived on the island. I noticed a quiet port town displaying traditional old stone buildings, quant narrow streets, and best of all, no tourists! YES. I knew in the first minute that I had made the right decision. I was quickly greeted by my apartment host who picked me up and escorted me to the guest house I would be staying in. After 10-15 minutes of navigating through windy roads, we had arrived. I had hoped for something secluded, but little did I know I would be staying in the middle of nowhere!

I shortly found out that the wifi only worked at the top of the driveway, and that the closest store/ restaurant/attraction was not even within walking distance. My first reaction was, how would I function for 2 days without wifi and without transportation? But then I remembered, wasn’t this what I came here for?

Getting Around the Island

Komiža town

Komiža town

After settling in, the host invited me up to the main house for some delightful fresh fruits, cheese, and salami. She then offered to let me use one of her bikes to explore the island, to which I happily agree. On the top of my agenda was visiting Stiniva Cove. As a captivating picture can often be the sole motivation for my decision to visit a destination, it is safe to say that a picture of Stiniva Cove single-handedly lured me to the island. The only thing standing in my way of seeing it was a mountain bike and 4 kilometres. When asking how to get there, I was given the seemingly typical foreigner response: “go right out of the driveway and when your see a church, turn left, then after 500 meters, turn right”, and so on. So without a map in hand, I was on my way! This should be fun.

A little weary of the fact that I’m a little directionally challenged to say the least, I must admit I was a little hesitant. And by hesitant I mean scared to death I would never make it back to that secluded guest house! As I slowly strolled my bike out of the driveway, the sound of gravel echoing beneath my wheels faintly reminded me of my childhood bike riding through the woods. Suddenly, I started to feel a little at ease. After 30 minutes of traversing steep hills and windy roads, the wooded area finally opened up into never-ending immaculately harvested vineyards. Had I died and gone to wine heaven? This is paradise! My legs were sore and shaking, and my bottom was numb from all the riding, but for a few moments, I didn’t feel a thing, except for the warm, blazing sun reflecting off my body. All I could think of was the taste of crisp white wine on the tip of my tongue. But that would have to wait!

Stiniva Cove

View from the top of Stiniva Cove

View from the top of Stiniva Cove

After the intense 4 kilometer bike ride, I finally ended up at the top of Stiniva Cove. I heard it was a tough hike, but I wasn’t expecting it to be that rugged! I inched my way down, sliding on the slippery rocks and shifting pebbles. A grueling 40 minutes later, I finally made it to the bottom, drenched in sweat and parched from the heat. My eyes enlarged as I witnessed one of the most beautiful and angelic things I had ever seen. I was standing inside a partially enclosed crescent-shaped cove, with the deep blue sparkling Adriatic Sea peaking though an opening. Forget what I said before, this is paradise! Behind me I was surprised to see a little hut where a local was serving cold drinks. I sat for a bit and drank some pear cider, as I resumed to chat with the local for some time. I then proceeded to bask in the sun and lowered myself into the shallow water.

I thought to myself, how is somewhere so perfect and etherial so empty? Then I remembered, I’m on Vis, the raw, authentic, underdeveloped island. And then it all made sense! Vis is a slice of heaven!It is here where I really came to appreciate the lesser-known, unique places, with a true sense of the local culture. Vis left an impact on me. I sat there in the serenity and quietness, and just let myself soak in my surroundings.

Komiža

Komiza town

Komiza town

Komiža is a small fishing town on the west coast of Vis island, framed by the Hum Mountain in the backdrop, some 600 meters high. Historically, the fishing industry was developed in Komiža in the 16th century, and this is the site of the first fish cannery on the Mediterranean.

From afar, this town looked a bit ritzy, giving off a French Riviera type vibe with all the beautiful boats lining the port. However, from the minute I stepped foot onto the marina, I fell in love with this place! There was something just so charming and genuine about this town. Beautiful stone buildings, narrow alleys, alfresco cafes, and orange rooftops is what caught my eye. It was so old and ancient, yet so alive. And as if for the first time, I witnessed the Croatian people in their natural habitat going about their everyday lives. I learned a lot about their culture. I learned that they are very simple people, and don’t require much to be happy.

In the late evening, I was fortunate enough to watch the Croatian soccer team in the World Cup with a bunch of locals. That in and of itself is a whole new experience! The passion that they have about this sport, and about their country, was incredible to watch, and the energy was quite contagious!

Final Thoughts on Vis

Vis embodies everything I love about Croatia, and so much more. It’s quiet and quaint, it’s genuine and authentic, it’s isolated and peaceful, it’s simple yet extraordinary, it’s filled with jaw-dropping nature, and it’s absolutely gorgeous!

There is something about Croatia that will always have a hold on me. Croatia is a special place. It leaves an impression on you that is everlasting. And for that, I am always destined to return.

Komiža port from afar

Komiža port from afar

Vis Tips

  • Make sure to visit Stiniva Cove by car or bike and hike down from the top (the boat tours only take you inside the little cove from the sea just briefly and you will not get the spectacular view from the top).
  • Dress appropriately for the hike, the rocks can be slippery (no sandals please!).
  • Don’t miss a visit to the Blue Caves at nearby Biševo (which unfortunately I didn’t have time for and am still kicking myself for missing).
  • Eat Seafood! This is the birthplace of the fishing industry after all, they must be doing something right!
  • Talk to the locals, they’re always there to help and give good insider tips!
  • Take a ride through the countryside and marvel at the wineries. And stop at one or two if you’re feeling keen.
  • Bring cash, as most places do not accept credit cards.

* A special thanks to Total Croatia for publishing my article on their awesome website!

 

Have you been to Vis island and had a similar experience? Do you have any other tips to share? I would love to hear them!