At the age of 16, my family embarked on an epic journey from Kuwait to Spain and back. We enjoyed the beautiful scenery and historical sites, met friendly people, and encountered a few challenges along the way.
The trip, as intended, was a lot of fun – but it was also educational. I learned about different places and people, and most importantly, I realized that there is a vast world outside of my neighborhood.
This trip also ignited my wanderlust for everything new and adventurous.
So why am I writing about a trip that happened several decades ago? Two reasons: One, I came across a box of old trip photos that brought back memories. Two, I came to realize that this trip had a significant impact on my life and personality. I thought it essential to commit it to memory.
The road trip from Kuwait to Spain is about 5000 miles
We passed through Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Bulgaria, Old Yugoslavia, Italy, France, and Spain
Best memories along the way: Crossing from Asia to Europe; Time in Varna at the Black Sea; Getting lost in Venice; Crossing through the Mont Blanc tunnel between Italy and France
A whirlwind tour of Spain with visits to Flamingo dance in a Gypsy Cave, Alhambra Castle in Granada; Toledo, Cordoba, Seville, and Valencia
This adventure happened in the summer of 1973, long before the internet and cell phones. So we had to prepare the old-fashioned way. We bought our camping supplies, maps, and guidebooks. We practiced our foreign languages. I practiced my English, and my dad practiced his French.
Since we were going through Bulgaria, I also learned the Cyrillic alphabet to read street signs. How did I decide to do so? One of the guidebooks mentioned the different alphabets in some counties, and I was up to the challenge.
We also had to buy international insurance, and my dad had to get an international driver's license.
My mom was responsible for preparing a lot of easy-to-store and easy-to-prepare meals and snacks. Not an easy task for a trip that spanned two months. Of course, we had to replenish our supplies along the way, but we had a good start.
After many months of planning, we were finally ready for this fantastic trip.
The trip at a glance
This epic journey was around 8000 KM (~5000 miles) long – one way. It is possible to take a straight shot route for about 4000 miles (6000 KM), but we took many side trips in each country.
We camped our way in major cities, on beaches, along riverbanks, and in forests. When we reached Madrid, Spain, we were ready for a luxurious stay with my uncle at this apartment.
After all these years, I can't tell you how much such a road trip cost us, but I do remember that it was affordable on a teacher's salary. Gas was a lot cheaper back then, and camping and food cost was minimal.
I do remember hating hard-boiled eggs for a long time after this trip. My mom tried to save time and money by pre-boiling a ton of eggs for the trip.
As we passed from one country to another, the landscape kept changing. We started with a bleak desert in Kuwait. We passed through another type of desert with rivers, farms, and palm trees in Iraq. We crossed snow-covered mountains and forests in Italy and France. We drove many long miles through lush green valleys throughout Europe.
And came across human-made wonders like the Bosphorus Bridge connecting Asia to Europe; the Aqueduct of Segovia, Spain; Hagia Sophia, Turkey; Venice, Italy; Mont Blanc Tunnel between Italy and France.
We also marveled at the many natural wonders like the Danube River and the Alps.
We saw and experienced so much during this trip; it is hard to account for every little detail. So I will highlight the most noteworthy in each country we passed.
We crossed many borders with such a long trip that covered nine countries. The crossing between the Arab countries and between Syria and Turkey was harrowing.
Sometimes, we had to wait hours for our passports to be processed and for our belongings to be searched. In others, we had to pay bribes to border agents to avoid harassment.
Keep in mind this was 1973. I hope things have improved after all this time, but I am not holding my breath. With the wars in Iraq and Syria, I imagine it is probably more painful now to cross borders.
The process improved dramatically when we crossed into Europe – and that was before the establishment of the European Union and their common borders.
Kuwait was where I grew up. I had a lifelong of experiences here, so there is nothing extra special to share here. Some famous sights and places in Kuwait are the Kuwait Towers with commanding views of the city, the Island of Failaka – with Alexandar the Great ruins, Covered Shopping Malls, and the long Cornish Drive.
Interesting Fact: Most Kuwaitis pack up and head to the desert for a week-long camping vacation called "Barr". During this time, Kuwaitis try to return to their Bedouin roots, but nowadays, their tents are full of modern luxuries like big-screen TVs and satellite dishes.
Kuwait is also where, as a college student, I had my boy band playing covers at weddings, marina clubs, and hotels.
Kuwait is also where, as a college student, I had my boy band playing covers at weddings, marina clubs, and hotels.
Iraq is an ancient and beautiful land, and its people were amiable and helpful. But we learned two important facts about this country very quickly. One, avoid public bathrooms like the plague—two, not a good place for campers.
We had to stay in hotels for most of the trip, but we were lucky to find a nice campground on the outskirts of Baghdad.
Two major rivers run through Iraq. The Euphrates and the Tigris. Most of the major towns are on the banks of those two rivers.
The highlights of our trek through Iraq:
Interesting Facts: Iraq has two major rivers – the Tigris and the Euphrates. The region between the rivers, known as Mesopotamia, is considered one of the oldest civilizations in the world, alongside Ancient Egypt.
In Basra, we got to try their famous bread (Samoon) with heavy cream (Kishtta) and jelly. A great way to start the day.
In Baghdad, we noticed the colorfully decorated Mosques with Islamic Calligraphy. We also witnessed the hero-worship of the then-dictator Saddam Hussein.
Damascus, Syria, is my birthplace. Although I grew up in Kuwait, I spent many happy summers in Damascus with my extended family.
Interesting Fact: Damascus is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. First settled in the second millennium BC, it was chosen as the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate from 661 to 750 _ Wikipedia.
To me, it was just another hometown, with visits to the cover market "Alhamidiya", the Umayyad Mosque, the International Fair, Mount Qasion, the Barada River, and the mountain resorts of "Bloudan".
Interesting Facts: Over the centuries, Syria has been ruled by the Roman, Greek, Arab, and Turkish empires.
My best childhood memories are the large family picnics on the banks of the river Barada.
On the way to Turkey, we had to cross the mountains of North Syria. Those mountains are home to alpine forests, towns that time forgot, and a few ancient castles.
Crossing through Turkey, I started to notice how language and culture gradually changed. Bordering Syria, the Antakya (Antioch) region, most people still speak Arabic.
Going further inland, the language became strictly Turkish, and the culture started to integrate more western ideas.
Interesting Facts: Turkey has one of the world's oldest and biggest malls - Istanbul's Grand Bazaar
We had to take the ferry across the Bosphorus to cross from Asia to Europe. The fantastic bridge connecting the continents was still being built.
We spent a few days in Istanbul, where we encountered a head-spinning mix of east and west. We walked through busy covered markets, gapped at historic buildings like Hagia Sophia, and visited modern cafes and restaurants. We also made side trips to ancient islands in the Sea of Marmara.
Interesting Facts: Saint Nicholas was born far from the North Pole, in Patara, Turkey
As a 16-year-old, I had an exciting adventure in Istanbul. I accidentally bumped into some friends from Kuwait at the campground, and we headed to town alone without adult supervision.
We went to a café/bar where we were allowed to have drinks and watch belly dancers swaying to Turkish songs.
We got lost on the way back to camp and hired a taxi with a kindly driver who led us back to camp. He waited in the cab while I snuck into the tent to grab cash from my sleeping father's wallet.
Bulgaria is where I got my first exposure to communism. At the time, Bulgaria was an integral part of the soviet block. Most people spoke Russian along with their native language.
In Sofia, the capital, I saw my first woman bus driver and the first policewoman. I also noticed how serious and no-nonsense they were.
Sofia also reminded me of Damascus, Syria. Like Damascus, it sits under a mountain (Vitosha), and it has a mix of historic buildings and extra-modern centers.
The most memorable sights are Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the city center, which contains the remains of ancient Serdica.
I also remember Sofia for its dreary cold weather and continuous rains.
Interesting Facts: Bulgaria is one of the oldest countries in Europe. It is also the only one, which never changed its name since its establishment in 681.
But while in Bulgaria, we met a cousin who convinced us to visit the coastal city of Varna. Varna is a beach town on the Black Sea. The city has a long history since ancient Greek times, who called it Odessos.
But we spent most of our time in the modern beach resorts swimming in the black sea, meeting new friends from all over Europe, and trying the local bread and snacks. We even watched an American movie dubbed Bulgarian at an open-air theater.
Interesting Facts: Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second-largest city, is the oldest, constantly inhabited city in Europe. For most of its 8,000-years-long history, it was known as Philipopolis.
In Varna, I also met Nikolaj, a teenage boy training to be a tourist ambassador. He knew a little English, and so did I. We fumbled through English and gestures to learn where to refill our propane tanks – and about life in Bulgaria.
Before I met him, we noticed how cheap food is. But for him, everything in Varna was costly. It seems that they all lived on the edge of poverty.
We were fortunate to visit Yugoslavia before it disintegrated into six independent countries. At the time, we didn't notice any divisions or unrest. People just went on with their lives.
On our way to Italy, we passed through Belgrade, Zagreb, and Ljubljana.
Interesting Facts: The Yugoslav passport was the most powerful passport in the world and had the most visa-free access to countries. People with that passport were able to go to capitalist countries and communist countries.
We didn't spend a lot of time in those major cities. The only thing I remember is the Church of Saint Sava in Belgrade.
But on the outskirts of Ljubljana, we spent three wonderful days at a camp on the bank of the Sava River – under a canopy of tall trees. This was my first experience with a wide roaring river with a lot of wildlife.
Once we crossed the border from Yugoslavia to Italy, we could see a clear difference in lifestyle. Everything in Italy looked more hectic and commercial. For the first time, we had to pay tolls to use the highways. Everything was much more expensive. It even felt more expensive because of the value of the local currency. A sandwich would cost 5-10 thousand Liras.
We passed through North of Italy, visiting Venice, Milan, and Genoa. But the most memorable moments were in Venice.
We camped close to Venice and took a boat to the islands. We visited the main tourist attractions, like Saint Mark's Basilica and the Rialto Bridge.
Interesting Facts: Tourists throw €1,000,000 into the Trevi Fountain each year. According to myth and legend, tossing a coin into the fountain guarantees you'll return to the Eternal City.
But we also spent time walking the narrow streets and over the bridges. At some point, we got lost and discovered uncrowded cafes away from the beaten path. And, of course, we took a ride on a Gandola with a very chatty-singing gondolier.
One moment, in particular, got stuck in my mind. In one of those narrow streets, several women were shouting at each other from their balconies. Speaking loudly in rapid Italian, they seemed to be fighting but probably were just chatting.
We just zipped through Milan, then drove above Genoa. I say above Genoa because a freeway bridge connecting two hills was so high above the city that it felt like we were flying.
For some reason, my dad decided to cross into France through the Mont Blanc tunnel. He could have continued on a coastal route to Monaco, but I am glad he decided on the Alps route.
Interesting Facts: French fries are not French! Belgian soldiers who spoke French introduced them to the American soldiers during World War One.
The scenery on both sides of the tunnel was stunning, but the sudden change of weather was dramatic. On the Italian side, it was sunny and warm; on the French side, it was cloudy, and snow was still covering the trees.
On the way down from the mountains, we had to stop at the small town of Grenoble to repair the windshield wipers, which decided to break down in the middle of a rainstorm.
Besides this forced stop for car repairs, we zipped through this region of France and didn't see much.
Later in life, I returned to this area and visited places like Chamonix, Annecy, and Lyon – and crossed through the Mont Blanc tunnel to go down memory lane.
Interesting Facts: The word “Salut” is used as a greeting and as a goodbye.
After this small mountain detour, we headed to the coast to visit Marseilles, Nice, and Monaco.
I loved Monaco's terraced homes and beaches and enjoyed the modern buildings in Nice.
But by this time, I was eager to reach our destination, Spain.
We finally made it to Madrid, where my uncle lives, and drove around for a while to find his apartment.
Back then, we didn't have cell phones to call ahead and meet up somewhere. So we depended on hand-written directions in a foreign city and a map.
We finally had our joyous family reunion, and we started a new adventure.
My uncle, a local in Madrid, took us on a tour of the most famous sights in town and then through Spain.
My most memorable moments in Madrid were going to a Gypsy cavern to watch a Flamingo dance show, the Fuente de Cibeles and Gran Via, La Montaña Park, and Plaza de España.
Interesting Facts: Not all people in the country of Spain speak Spanish - but the Spanish language is the second most spoken mother tongue in the world – after Mandarin.
At the park, we strolled through an ancient Egyptian temple (Temple of Debod). The template was brought to Spain from Abu Simbel in 1968.
Our tour of Spain took us through Toledo, Cordoba, Seville, Granada, and Valencia.
In Granada, we explored the fort and gardens of Alhambra. Long after the Moors left Andalus, the place is still standing with all its glory.
Interesting Facts: With 48 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Spain ranks second in Europe and third globally. The most famous ones are the Alhambra fortress in Granada, the works of Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, and the pilgrimage route – Camino de Santiago.
As we were exiting a garden restaurant in Seville, we came across a festival with dancing and singing. This is where I bought a massive sombrero for a souvenir and carried it back all the way to Kuwait.
On the way back to Madrid, we spent a few days at a Valencia camp right on the beach.
Other memorable sights along our drive through Spain were the expansive sun-flower fields, the Mosque of Córdoba, La Sagrada Familia, The Caves of Nerja, and Plaza Mayor.
The journey back
The journey back to Kuwait was anticlimactic and passed in a blur. I can't recall half of the places we camped at. I think my dad was in a hurry to return and drove a lot.
Our supply of traveler's checks was running low. We didn't have ATMs or Credit Cards to replenish our cash.
But by the time we made it back home, I had accumulated a lifetime's worth of memories and adventures.
I didn't know it back then, but that epic journey was the seed for my love of adventure and travel.