19 – Travelling in Egypt – Alexandria, Marsa Matrouh and Siwa – Podcast

December 7, 2011 by  
Filed under Egypt, Leisure, Podcasts, Sightseeing, World

In Travel Podcast Episode 19 I visit Egypt where I spent a week travelling with a friend who lives in Alexandria. I took a walking tour of the city where many of the houses are crumbling away and where we bumped into a wedding procession hooting horns and letting off fireworks. We drove west to the popular holiday resort of Marsa Matrouh and turned south-west to the desert oasis of Siwa near the Libyan border. I found Siwa to be a truly magical place and we explored the old mud brick fortress of the Shali, visited the ancient tombs at Gebel al-Mawta or the Mountain of the dead and watched the sun set over the lake at Fatnas island.

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Alexandria in Egypt Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Alexandria in Egypt

On my first day in Alexandria, I drove along the corniche that stretches along the coastline, past the Alexandria library which surprised me for being a modern building, not ancient as I had imagined. My new friend Gordon, an Englishman who lives in Alexandria took me on a walking tour of the old Italian, French and Greek neighbourhoods. The impression is of buildings that are peeling and run down, as the rents are fixed and the tenancy can be handed down the generations so the landlords have no incentive to renovate their properties.

We wandered through the souks where we found a street for every different thing you might want to buy, such as the stationary street and the party decoration street . Gordon told me that the Alexandrians celebrate all the festivals for each different religion, but they can only start decorating 2 weeks before. We walked through the fruit market where strawberries were in season & the fresh figs would soon be available in June and finished in the jewellery quarter where although most shops were shut I still managed to treat myself to a necklace.

Beau Rivage Hotel at Marsa Martrouh Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Beau Rivage Hotel at Marsa Martrouh

Beau Rivage Hotel at Marsa Martrouh Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Beau Rivage Hotel at Marsa Martrouh

Check for the best hotel prices in Egypt and book here.

The next day, we drove westwards out of Alexandria along the coast road past a succession of holiday developments, each closely built in a different architectural style with only the occasional break through which you could glimpse the sea. These are popular with Egyptian families although they are only used in the summer months although I preferred it when the developments petered out and we were just driving through the desert. We passed El Alamein, the site of the famous World War 2 tank battles, passing the Italian, German & British war cemeteries. We arrived after a few hours at Marsa Matrouh where everyone in Alexandria comes for their summer holidays with a lot of apartments and hotels. We noticed a few military checkpoints, partly because of the recent revolution and partly because Libya has claims on this part of Egypt so it is treated as a military zone.

We stayed at the Beau Rivage hotel on the edge of town, with views over the beautifully landscaped gardens and over the pool and towards the sea. We enjoyed relaxing on the sun loungers on the beach and took a dip in the intensely turquoise sea – but after a while we felt everything was a bit too perfect so we took a walk beyond the hotel walls and found a bit of normal Egyptian life outside the hotel compound. We came across a man fishing and another with his children making a small fire of brushwood on the beach where he was brewing up some tea and showed us a small fish that he was keeping alive in a rock pool and was planning to cook later.

That evening we decided to drive into town for dinner to look for a good fish restaurant as the Alexandrians take great pride in their fresh fish. Our Egyptian friend, Said, inspected all the fish that were on display on ice and we chose what we wanted and then it was weighed and we paid for the weight. We were asked how we liked it cooked – grilled, fried or with a sauce and of course we over-ordered a huge spread of giant prawns, octopus and fish served with meze and salads. After dinner I was getting internet withdrawal symptoms and we found an internet cafe which was filled with men watching football and smoking the shisha pipes. I puzzled over the problem of logging on to the Wifi since the password was in Arabic script, but luckily a Libyan medical student came to our rescue and managed to copy the password from his phone onto my laptop to log in. Meanwhile we drank hibiscus tea and a creamy desert topped with fruit and coconut.

Internet Cafe at Marsa Martrouh Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Internet Cafe at Marsa Martrouh

The next day we drove on to Siwa about 3 hours south west of Marsa Matrouh, through the gritty desert landscape with the odd military base and a cafe half way in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly the rocky outcrops that surround Siwa rose out of the desert and we saw the lake ahead of us (and it’s not a mirage!). The oasis is based on underground springs that keep the oasis green and enable date palms and olive trees to grow. We stayed at the lovely Siwa Safari Gardens Hotel – an oasis within the oasis with a spring-fed pool in the middle of the garden and our rooms in the 2 story buildings around the garden.

The traditional buildings in Siwa are made out of rock salt and mud clay and the Siwa people are keen to preserve their culture and the tranquil atmosphere with sustainable tourism. Since it was not long after the revolution and the Libyan crisis was still going on, there were not many tourists although we felt very safe in Siwa.

The Shali in Siwa in Egypt Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

The Shali in Siwa in Egypt

We visited the Temple of the Oracle, with mud wall construction and the remains of the stone built temple at the top with amazing views towards the lake and over the city. Then we stopped at Cleopatra’s spring which is a large round pool with clear green water with the bubbles coming to the surface, reminding me of the Roman springs at Bath near where I live. We sat and had some lemon grass tea in a cafe next to the Cleopatra’s spring and we were offered a small fruit the size of a cherry but with the flavour of  an apple. The date palms and olives are the main cash crops in Siwa- vegetables can also grow here but they are sold locally as they would cost too much to transport.

We visited the Siwa House, a museum of Siwa culture, where the curator told us the story behind the wedding dresses worn by the Siwa women. The dress worn for the wedding night is made of embroidered green silk, although many of the women now wear western style wedding dresses. The creamy white silk dress with embroidery like the rays of a sun is worn on the third day after the wedding when the bride’s relatives come to visit her, although her mother does not visit her until the seventh day when she wears a black silk dress with embroidery and mother of pearl buttons for decoration. The mother of pearl buttons were brought on the caravans by traders who would exchange wool, carpets and wheat in exchange for dates and olive oil. The dyes used to colour the silk fabric and the embroidery thread are made from dates – the traditional colours of Siwa are only green, yellow, orange, red and black – each colour is produced from the dates at different stages in their ripening. The trousers and shawls are also made from natural silk embroidered with the coloured threads.

The House of Siwa in Siwa, Egypt Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

The House of Siwa in Siwa, Egypt

When the female relatives of the bride visit her after the wedding they are offered part of the heart of the palm as a special treat, but the mother of the bride receives a whole palm heart decorated with fruit and sweets. This is considered a great sign of hospitality as the palm is considered a valuable plant due to the dates it produces. From the age of 10 to 13 when they get engaged the young girls start to embroider their wedding dresses helped by their mothers and their aunts. The parents will arrange the marriage for their children, choosing the husband based on the knowledge of the families rather than financial considerations.  The hair of the women in Siwa is braided in different styles depending on whether the woman is single or married. The unmarried girls will have many braids on each side of their heads while the married women have 9 braids which cross over the forehead.

Gebel al-Mawta, Mountain of the Dead in Siwa in Egypt Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Gebel al-Mawta, Mountain of the Dead in Siwa in Egypt

We also visited Gebel al Mawta or the Mountain of the Dead, the ancient burial place of Siwa. We climbed to the top of the mound and looked down on all the rock hewn tombs below, some of which can be viewed with a guide and are painted inside. You can hear the wind blowing at the top and from there I got a great panorama over the oasis, looking across to the ancient fortress town of the Shali.

Mint tea at Fatnas island in Siwa in Egypt Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Mint tea at Fatnas island in Siwa in Egypt

Sunset at Fatnas island in Siwa in Egypt Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Sunset at Fatnas island in Siwa in Egypt

That evening we drove to Fatnas island to see the sunset setting over the lake although in recent years the lake level has dropped so it is more like a salt marsh. Sitting in rattan chairs we sipped sweet mint tea and looked across the lake to the eco-lodge where Prince Charles and Camilla stayed when they were in Siwa. We chatted to the man who owned this land and had set up the tea kiosk as a business – he is a storyteller who had travelled all over the Middle East including a performance for the Queen of Jordan. In the darkness we drank our tea under the date palms as we watched the sun go down.

Other podcasts you may enjoy

 Papua New Guinea podcast – interview with Beth Whitman
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heatheronhertravels' Egypt - Alexandria photoset heatheronhertravels’ Egypt – Alexandria photoset

 

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6 misconceptions I had about Alexandria – in Egypt

August 2, 2011 by  
Filed under Egypt, Leisure, Sightseeing, World

I’d never been to Egypt until my visit in May to see a friend, my only other experience of the Arab world being Lebanon a couple of years before. Inevitably I had a few preconceptions about Egypt, but things were not quite as I expected…

Faded grandeur or crumbling away?

If Alexandria would like to style itself as a Meditteranean tourist destination, there may be an uphill struggle with many of the buildings appearing to be crumbling away before your very eyes. This isn’t faded grandeaur, this is genuine dust and decay. The road runs along the seafront corniche and if anywhere this would normally be place for beautiful old buildings to be renovated to make the most of the sea view and the promenade. But even here, the buildings are pretty scruffy.

Crumbling houses in Alexandria Photo:Heatheronhertravels.com

Crumbling houses in Alexandria

I was told that the reason behind the crumbling buildings was that an Egyptian law passed some years ago fixed the rents of many apartment buildings and these low rents can now be passed down from generation to generation, This means that faced with minimal income from their properties and with no means to raise rents to market levels, the landlords spend no money on their buildings, leaving them to crumble away for lack of repair.

Cover yourself, Ladies

I had an image of Egypt as being one of the more stable and liberal of the Arab world and I thought that this might translate to their dress codes.  After visiting Beirut where uncovered heads for women seem almost the norm I guess I was expecting something similar in Egypt. Not so, as the norm for Muslim women, even those that are not terribly religious, to cover their heads with a scarf. If you see a lady in Alexandria without a headscarf, chances are that she’s a Christian or foreign. I’m told that this has been a change over the last few years and where once young women would have their heads uncovered, they are now submitting to peer pressure and covering up.

It was fun to see however that teenagers were still finding their own style, pushing the scarfs back to show their hair or wearing them somewhat gypsy style and in brighter colours than their mothers. It was also interesting that the young also often wear western fashions such as strappy tops with jeans, it’s just they wear them with a long sleeved high necked T-shirt underneath. In Alexandria it’s probably fine for tourists to wear a short sleeved t-shirt as long as it covers your shoulders and cleavage, but in more conservative rural areas, you’ll want to cover your arms to the elbow and legs below the knees.

Cafe in Alexandria Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Cafe in Alexandria

Fresh fish and seafood in Alexandria

Being on the Meditteranean coast, there is a plentiful supply of fish in Alexandria and there are many restaurants renowned for their seafood. The Alexandrians pride themselves on being able to choose the freshest fish and in a fish resturant you’ll find a refrigerated counter where the fish is laid out on ice. Take your time to make your choice, then the fish is weighed and you are charged according to the weight.

Fresh fish in a restaurant in Egypt

Fresh fish in a restaurant

The fish is normally cooked quite plainly without sauces, your main choice being whether you’d like it grilled or fried. On my last night in Alexandria I enjoyed a seafood meal at the Greek club at the end of the harbour wall near the lighthouse. The whole building was once a private club but now the top floor restaurant is run separately and anyone can go there to eat. You get a view over the harbour and the sailing club next door and can choose to eat inside or on the terrace overlooking the sea.

Fish in a restaurant in Egypt

Fish in a restaurant in Egypt

The Alexandria library is modern not ancient

Having heard about the library at Alexandria, a wonder of the ancient world, I assumed that there would be some remains to see, but nothing at all is left . So when people speak about the library, they mean the Biblioteca Alexandrina, the modern library complex which was was completed in 2002 near the site of the ancient library. The Biblioteca houses art galleries, museums and exhibition spaces as well as a number of libraries on different levels. After visiting the desert oasis at Siwa I had hoped to visit the library but unfortunately we ran out of time so I never made it there.

Biblioteca Alexandrina Photo by Moreno on Flickr

Biblioteca Alexandrina

Alexandria is Mediterranean rather than Oriental

I haven’t been to the south of Egypt or to the Nile delta but I’m told that the feeling in Alexandria is quite different, with a Meditteranean outlook. Until many were forced to leave in the late 50s by President Nasser’s anti-European policies, there was a thriving European community of Greeks and Italians and you can still wander around the old Greek and Italian quarters. The climate is more temperate too and when I visited in May it was pleasantly warm in the day with a sea breeze and cool enough for a cardigan at night.

In the back streets of Alexandria Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

In the back streets of Alexandria

Friendly people and no hassle

I had this preconception of Egypt as a place where you can barely move without someone trying to sell you something whether it be a camel ride or fake antiquity. The hassle factor was the one thing that kept Egypt at the bottom of my wish list to visit. But things are very different in Alexandria to the tourist traps around Cairo and Luxor. In Alexandria there are barely any tourists and so life goes on as normal around you with everyone I met being friendly and welcoming. Of course I was with local friends and I might well have experienced more hassle had I been an single woman wandering around alone, but I left with a feeling of Egypt as a much more relaxed and hassle free place than I had imagined.

Check for the best hotel prices in Alexandria and book here.

 

More Egyptian stories

My trip to Alexandria and Siwa with My Vacation iPhone app
What makes the perfect holiday in Marsa Matrouh
More than the pyramids – a grand tour of Egypt’s museums

 

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heatheronhertravels' Egypt - Alexandria photoset heatheronhertravels’ Egypt – Alexandria photoset

 

Photo credit: Alexandria Library by Moreno

This article is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com - Read more travel articles at Travel Blog Home

You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey

Subscribe to Heatheronhertravels Don’t miss out – subscribe to Heather on her travels

My trip to Alexandria & Siwa with My Vacation iPhone app

I’ll admit to being a late starter where iPhones are concerned. While every blogger in the world seemed to have one, I dithered at the expense, until one day my husband took matters into his own hands and just bought me one. Now my iPhone is my constant companion, we’ve been on holiday together and although it wasn’t love at first sight, I think it’ll be a long term relationship.

My Vacation iPhone App SummarySince an iPhone is nothing without a few apps to play with, when I was asked to review the My Vacation iPhone app from Jasper apps I decided to give it a go on my recent trip to Egypt.

The My Vacation iPhone app allows you to create a mini blog of your journey and share it with your friends and family. You choose your theme, set up your trip, and then each day you can write a mini journal on your iPhone. Add some photos that you’ve just taken on the iPhone, or maybe even some audio if you’re feeling daring. Behind the scenes a map is created from the location of the photo, so that you can see where you where you took it and later see the whole map of your journey.

If you take the time to build up the record each day, by the end you have a cool record of your trip that you can show friends in a slide show with commentary on your phone.

My Vacation iPhone App photoAll that is fun to share at the end of the trip, but to be honest I wouldn’t be making the effort if it weren’t for the fact that there are multiple ways to share the record that you’ve created. For instance you can e-mail the record of each day or several days to friends and family, send one of the photos as a cute email ‘postcard’, export the whole set of photos to your Flickr account, or send the photos as Tweets. If you have a WordPress or Blogger blog you can also send the journal to create a new post, and you can see the results at the bottom of this article.

I haven’t covered the features exhaustively, for instance you can also use the app to make lists before you go, but these are the features that I found useful and enjoyed. It was fun to e-mail my husband & kids a visual account of what I’d done that day, or to send friends a ‘postcard’, and just this weekend I was showing my parents the slideshow on my iPhone.

I also think the map feature is really cool – if you click on the map links in the blog post at the bottom you’ll see what I mean. It’s a bit spooky to get the close-up satellite view of the place I was standing when I took the shots -  better make sure you don’t mind revealing your whereabouts or you’d be found out big time.

My Vacation iPhone app postcardDownsides? Obviously if you’re in the middle of the desert in Western Egypt the free wifi is not on every street corner, and with my roaming switched off I couldn’t be quite as spontaneous as I might have liked, but had to wait until I got back to the hotel to do my sharing. Also I noticed that when I took a few new pictures, the app didn’t access them until I turned the phone off and on again.

On the blogging front, the way that the content was imported into my site wasn’t that attractive, but there would be nothing to stop me doing a quick bit of editing to make it pretty before publication. Take a look below and see what you think.

Still for £1.79 I’m hardly complaining. If you’re really skint you can download the free lite version and give it a try first, and this will allow you to set up one trip with up to 15 photos, then upgrade if you like it.

As a blogger, who’s already photographing, audio recording, shooting video and scribbling notes in between, I did find it was a bit arduous to remember to do it all again on the iPhone app. But then I don’t represent most travellers, for whom this could become their mini blog of the trip. That said I’ll definitely use the app on future trips as a way to send updates to friends and family and the ability to upload photos directly to my Flickr account without any wires is alone worth it’s weight in gold to me.

My Vacation apps to giveway

JasperApps kindly gave me a couple of free apps to give a way, so if you’d like one please leave a comment at the bottom and in a week or so I’ll choose 2 of you at random to send a free download code and give the app a try. If you can’t wait then it’ll only cost you £1.79 anyway.

I was not paid to do this review but Jasper Apps kindly gave me a free app to try & a couple to give away.

Where you can get the My Vacation iPhone App

My Vacation iPhone app on iTunes
Jasper Apps website

Take a look at the video below covering the My Vacation iPhone app features

And here’s how it came out as a blog post

Alexandria, Matrouh , Siwa, El Alamein
Sat 07 May – Sat 14 May


Day 1 – Off To The Airport

 

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Just off to the airport

Flying Egyptair from Heathrow to Cairo and on to Alexandria. Will get there after midnight.

On the coach to Heathrow
[Map]
Egyptair through Cairo to Alexandria
[Map]

Day 2 – Arrived In Alexandria

 

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Had a relaxing morning staying with my friend who works and lives in Alexandria.

Then I went downtown to meet a fascinating English gentleman called Gordon who knows everything about the architecture and history of Alexandria.

He took me around the old Italian and Turkish quarters where all the buildings are crumbling and through the different areas of the market with each street selling something different, from stationary to party decorations to fruit and finally the jewellery street. Most of the shops were closed on Sunday but I still managed to find one that was open and chose a pretty necklace.

The Majestic Hotel where the we’re E.M.Forster sta
[Map]
Into the part of the souk where they sell everythi
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A lunch of Meze and kebabs in Tahir square
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This dried root is made into a drink that gives wo
[Map]

Day 3 – On the coast at Matrouh

Matrouh

Monday, 9 May 2011

Set off early for the 3 hour drive along the coast west to Matrouh, a resort that’s a very popular holiday resort for Egyptians, especially those from Alexandria.

On the way we passed many separate developments of holiday houses, each with slightly different designs but all built closely together between the busy main coast road and the sea. Every so often there was a gap where you could see what the desert was like before the building boom.

We reached Matrouh in good time and checked into the Beau Rivage Hotel, a resort style hotel beside the sea on the edge of town. In high season it would be packed but in May it was pretty deserted even though the sun was hot, the pool inviting and the sea a clear turquoise.

Later we drove into town and found a fish restaurant where the fish was all laid out on ice for is to choose what looked most fresh – it was all locally caught. Then we finished the evening in a cafe catching up on the emails using the free wifi surrounded by men (not a woman in sight) sitting on pink and purple plastic chairs smoking shisha pipes. Most incongruous.

On the private beach at our hotel
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The pool at Beau Rivage Hotel
[Map]
My room at Beau Rivage
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Day 4 – On To Siwa

Siwa

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Drove on through the desert to the oasis at Siwa where wells and springs have created a number of lakes and a green oasis in the middle of the desert.

We checked in to the Siwa Safari Gardens hotel which proved to be a mini oasis within the Oasis with palm trees in the garden and a swimming pool fed from the spring.

We took a drive around some of the sites and saw the temple that Alexander the great had visited and then on to Cleopatra’s spring, a round pool fed by a spring with gas bubbling up through the green water. We sat in the open air cafe beside the spring and drank hot sweet lemon grass tea served in a metal pot workbench glasses.

We met a local English lady who showed us the house in the old quarter that she was renovating, using traditional techniques of salt blocks and clay. What a labour of love!

Siwa Safari Gardens Hotel
[Map]
Oracle temple at Siwa
[Map]
Oracle temple at Siwa
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Cleopatra’s spring at Siwa
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Tea at Cleopatra’s pool in Siwa
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Day 5 – Around Siwa

 

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

We enjoyed Siwa so much that we decided to stay an extra day and had a look around the Shali, once the fortified old town. The mud brick houses are all broken down leaving a somewhat lunar landscape and you can clamber up to the top for great views over the town.

In the evening we did the traditional thing and went to see the sunset from Fatnas island, sitting under the date palms sipping sweet mint tea.

Mint tea at Fatnas island
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Sunset at Fatnas island, Siwa
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Day 6 – Siwa to Marsa Matrouh

Matrouh

Thursday, 12 May 2011

A last look around Siwa and then drove 3 hours through the desert to arrive back at Marsa Matruh, this time staying at the Jaz Almaza Beach hotel just outside the town. The hotel is part of a resort complex with 3 other hotels and is 5 star luxurious but nothing much to see or do outside the hotel.

We had the place to ourselves as it would normally be full of Italian holidaymakers but the start of the holiday season had been postponed due to the Libyan crisis, but they were expecting to be full the following week.

Jaz Almaza Beach hotel in Marsa Matruh
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Beach at the Jaz Almaza beach hotel in Marsa Matru
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Gardens at the Jaz Almaza beach hotel in Marsa Mat
[Map]

Day 7 – Al Alamein and Alexandria

El Alamein

Friday, 13 May 2011

On the way from Marsa Matruh to Alexandria we stopped at El Alamein, site of the famous Allied desert campaign in WW2. We looked at all the information and uniforms in the museum with a different room for each of the nations, German, Egyptian, Italian and British. There were plenty of different tanks and army vehicles on display outside.

Just down the road we stopped at the Commonwealth and British war ceremony, beautifully kept up by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Then onwards back to Alexandria

The museum at El Alamein
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Tanks at the museum at El Alamein
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Tanks at the museum at El Alamein
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Day 8 – Holiday Ends, Home Again

Alexandria

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Early start from Alexandria airport and on to Cairo then home to the Uk

Photo 1
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Sent from my iPhone by My Vacation app (www.myvacationapp.com)

Check for the best hotel prices in Egypt and book here.

 

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heatheronhertravels' Egypt - My Vacation iPhone App photos photoset heatheronhertravels’ Egypt – My Vacation iPhone App photos photoset

 

This article is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com – Read more travel articles at Travel Blog Home

You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey

Subscribe to Heatheronhertravels Don’t miss out – subscribe to Heather on her travels