Category Archives: Europe

Travelogue Italy 5: Sorrento

SORRENTO & AMALFI COAST

20-21 June 2017

Having caught the ferry from Capri after a day of fun in the sun and the sea, we were desperately in need of a shower… And even more so after we’d trekked to our hotel.

Consulting Google Maps as we arrived in the port, we made the executive decision to walk to our hotel since it was only 800m away. Little did we know that, with Sorrento sitting atop a sheer cliff-face, the 800m walk was a 45 degree path that was at least double the distance since it wound back and forth!

We were grateful to arrive into the prettiest boutique town, which is Stepford in its perfection. With the horse and carriage clippetty-clopping on volcanic grey cobblestones past us on a pretty little piazza with gayly coloured flowers, (perfectly flat) Sorrento was a breath of fresh air.

Our hotel was a chip and a putt from there, neatly nestled in a quiet sideroad off the main drag, and its blue and white tiled hallway made us feel fresher already.

We checked into our room (the receptionist was astounded that we’d walked up with our luggage and whispered to me conspiratorially not to tell Christian that there is an elevator from the Port!) and had the long awaited shower – bliss! – before consulting The Fork for our dinner arrangements (since all that self-portering had left us famished!)

With an 8pm reservation in place, we took a whip around the town, delighted to see that the main street was closed off to cars so pedestrians were milling about, shopping, eating and unapologetically people-watching from the many bars and cafes that had their chairs laid out theatre-style facing the road. Judging by the number of pink sun-slapped faces, we assumed that this town was a favourite among the Brits and Scots.

There was also a wonderful market street running parallel to the main street, selling all sorts of wonderful locally produced wares like leather goods, linens and all things lemon (production of which the region is famous for). We would have to return after dinner when we were strong and focused enough to enjoy the experience.

We’d chosen our restaurant for its story. A new place, opened in 2017 by 2 sons to celebrate their father’s apparently illustrious career in waitering. The story, with the weighty name ‘Miseria e Nobilta’ had us curious enough to need to try it out.

We had the most delicious crumbed and deepfried mozarella fritta and croquettes to start, with a most unusual pork and beans pasta and a lasagne for main course, served with a (cold) garlic broccoli. Amazing food and very attentive service with the owners themselves handling drinks and table service.

Happy to have supported a new local business and happier to have been fed to bursting, we took a wander through to the end of town and then back again through the market.

I managed to get a fabulous handcrafted (in Sorrento!) leather bag with, coincidentally, a “C&C” logo punched on the silver clasp, for a bargain €20! And a less elegant, but no less classic bargain Italia supporters hoodie. Christian resisted any immediate purchase, but from the way he was earnestly haggling with the sales lady, I sense the procurement of a collection of leather work shoes in his future!

AMALFI COAST CRUISE

Christian had pre-booked an Amalfi Cruise for us so that we could see as much as possible in the single day we had to explore the massive coastline and all the little towns and villages dotted along it.

Somehow, we’d forgotten to bring our printed tickets but the situation was easily resolved by calling the Get Your Guide call centre, who graciously traced the booking and emailed us a digital ticket.

We met the tour bus at the designated spot – coincidentally outside the restaurant we’d eaten at the night before – and were transported to the Marina where our boat was ready and waiting (with several others).

We were seated at the front of the boat (with the young people, how flattering!)  and were soon jetting off down the coast.

No more than about 15 minutes’ sailing in, we stopped for a swim in a sheltered inlet between a triangulated island and 2 rocky outcrops. We were told this was Isola Regale, owned by Sorrento guy who has built a villa, a church and a restaurant on his little island. The boat provided masks, kickboards and floating rings for us to use while flopping about like we owned the place.

Back on the boat, we sunned and lounged on the padded bow as we sailed along the Amalfi coastline, admiring the view and marvelling at how the houses and villages wedged into the cliffs ever came to be. It would be hard enough today with all the construction technology we have now, but how in the world did they manage it all in yesteryear? And how did they get anywhere, when their homes were so remote with what must be hellish walks to the nearest town!

Our first shore stop was the town of Amalfi, a charming little village constructed around a magnificent Cathedral and bustling piazza. Our hosts on the boat gave us each a prepackaged roll to serve as lunch-on-the-go during our couple hours to explore.

As a tiny little town (hard to believe once the commercial leader of the Mediterranean), we saw all of it in less than half an hour, which might have been less had the back end of the town not started ascending into the slopes of the mountain into which it was built (and might have been more had we had visited the paper and/or the compass museum).

Being midday, everywhere was busy and it was hot so we got an ice-cold Peroni quart and settled in the shade at the beachfront to have our lunch.

Initially unexcited by the prospect of the Caprese sandwich (mozarella and tomato), we were pleasantly surprised to find that it was really tasty, with a fresh and chewy sourdough style roll and pesto and the tomato to add some zest and mositure. It still could have used a slathering of butter, but that doesn’t seem to happen here. We’d yet to have butter served at the travel with the mandatory basket of bread – and when we’d asked, we were brought a bottle of olive oil. And there had also been neither salt nor pepper on the table anywhere for that matter.

Applauding the success of the simple traditional fare, we felt it time to try a “baba”, which is a sort of cross between a cupcake and a tall skinny muffin. From what we’d seen and read, the standard one comes soaked in rum (yuck) so Amalfi was the perfect opportunity to sample since they were known for lemon baba! (And all things lemon really; we saw a lemon the size of my head at one of the stands we passed!)

They were more elusive than you’d have thought. But we found a little bakery that had them and wasted no time in ordering one each… And a lemon cannoli each for luck. Both were beautifully fresh and light and, we surmise, excellent examples of these delicacies.

With half an hour left we braved the pebble beach, hobbling and hopping to the water like we were walking on hot coals! The swim was worth it though and we were a lot less sweaty getting back in the boat.

The skipper guided the boat along the shoreline, moving closer to show us things of interest, like a grotto, a natural rock arch, a really tall bridge (that crazy people jump off for fun), natural coves, bays and even a little waterfall, which he slowly backed into so the people at the back of the boat could touch the water.

Our next shore stop was Positano, which was on the shortlist of places we considered to homebase from. So very glad we didn’t!

A busier, fancier version of Amalfi, the little town – while very pretty and an architectural wonder wedged into the mountain as it is – was a bit devoid of character and felt to us, even as tourists, to be too much of a tourist trap.

Being much of the same, we did a quick whip around to make sure we saw what needed seeing and then spent a good hour sitting in a garden terrace restaurant that served over-prices everything and had terribly service… But had those fans that blow fine mist spray so was easily the coolest place in town.

Finishing off the visit with a cursory hobble into the sea, it was back on the boat for the sunset ride home.

The cruise was great… But we agreed that had it to do all over again we would probably have taken the bus tour which was quicker, cheaper and includes another town (Revello) and a sit-down lunch. Nevermind, we live and learn (from these #firstworldproblems).

Back in Sorrento – and after a heavenly shower! – we had our second dinner in Sorrento at an amazing restaurant called La Tavola Di Lucullo. Even with an 8pm booking, which is early by Mediterranean standards, the restaurant was very busy.

We ordered our water and (now standard) Margherita-to-share starter before even looking at the menu because we were starving, having survived the whole day on the hotel Continental breakfast and the Caprese roll (the Italians are certainly not afraid of carbs!!). So far we’d not had a bad – or even average – meal in Italy, and this dinner was up there among the best.

We had had aspirations of visiting Sorrento’s Irish pub to log the index, but the long day in the sun had us beat so we called it a day, responsibly saving something of ourselves for the next day’s trip to Pompeii.

Travelogue Italy 4: Capri

CAPRI

20 June 2017

The plan was to do a day-long pitstop in Capri island between our visits to Naples and Sorrento, since this famous playground of the rich and famous lay conveniently between the two gulfs of Naples and Solerno, at the end of the Sorrento peninsula. 

We’d booked our tickets to Capri at the port when we arrived, aso all that remained to be done in the morning was eat breakfast and check out before walking (back past Castel Nuovo) to the ferry.

We were surprised and delighted to see some hot fare on the buffet, which had all been strictly Continental until this point. There was a little bain-marie with 3 dishes and we served a spoonful of scrambles and a hearty serving of streaky bacon but passed on the green peas (!!) with little blocks of ham.

Just the jetfuel we needed to lug our suitcases across the Harbourfront to our jetty, where our ferry was ready and waiting for us to board.

The journey was pleasant (thanks to great air-conditioning mostly) and an hour or so later we saw the paradise coast of Capri.

We alighted at Marina Grande and followed the directions we’d found on the internet for a place to store our bags for the day. As luck would have it, the baggage store was opposite the other ferry terminal, where we’d be catching the crossing to Sorrento at the end of the day. For €3 each, it was cheap at the price to be rid of the bags for the day with the peace of mind they were safe.

It’s a small island so there is a finite list of things to do and it was easy to knock a few off right away to make our itinerary fit the day. We were able to lob off a whole coast by skipping their Blue Grotto in the North West (starting to feel like “seen one grotto, seen ’em all”) and the collection of forts in the North East, and decided to catch the bus to the farthest point and work our way back.

That took us to Anacapri. The ancient Greek prefix “ana-” means up/above, signifying that this elegant little village lies above the village of Capri (which is why we took the bus, to avoid further clarification climbing).

Anacapri is less famous than its counterpart and even drawing out our little tour couldn’t have taken more than half an hour and, having seen all 3 major sights in Anacapri, we took the famous Phoenetician Steps down to the Marina Grande, which had been the only access from Marina Grande and Anacapri until 1877 – quite a mission at almost 1000 unevenly spaced and sized stone steps!

It was thirsty work getting down all those steps – don’t be fooled, downhill is still hard work! – and swimtime was a good incentive to keep up the pace.

The beach was, as we were discovering to be the norm, a sliver of pebbles, with the usual half designated to side-by-side extortionately priced loungers and the other half a patchwork of sunbathers. As usual, being South African, we packed all our things into our bag, covered it with our towel (the trusty free-gift towel from Catania. What would we have done without it??) and kept and eye on it from the sea.

As much of a mission as it is to get in and out of the sea because of the blasted pebbles, it’s always nice to be in the water, cooling off.

And essential, since the next trick was to climb the path to Capri. It’s quite a steep and winding path to get you up the mountainside and again we were reminded that Google Maps doesn’t take altitude into account and not all 650m walks are made even! It felt like an epic achievement, but bearing in mind it’s the main path through Capri’s suburbs, this is (still) everyday life for a lot of people!

We’d timed it to be in Capri town for lunchtime, to not only get a bite but (probably more so) to miss the worst of the midday heat. We’d booked a pizza place on the edge of town, fancying it to be a little less busy – the town square, Piazza Umberto, is known as “the lounge of Capri” because all the restaurant tables and chairs blend into one –  and we were right. With a lovely view and on the edge of the chaotic little town, we enjoyed a salami pizza that took forever to come, but was delicious when it arrived.

All that remained for the afternoon was a visit to Marina Piccola, which was supposed to be the smaller, quieter beach, so we set off on foot to enjoy the winding panoramic downhill road.

Marina Piccola was smaller. It was not quieter.

With a section of (pebbled) shoreline servicing two channels of water with a massive boulder in between, there were people everywhere. Worse still, there were teenage boys goading others on the massive rock to jump into the shallow waters. I couldn’t bear to watch as 2 of them jumped in, fearing we were about to bear witness to these youngsters’ undoing.

They were fine. We were off.

We got the bus back up to Capri and trotted down the path back to Marina Grande, which now seemed so much quicker that it was a familiar route.

The ferry schedule gave us lots of options, but we figured our day in Capri was done and successful so we might as well beat the rush, catching the 4pm ferry to Sorrento.

We got our bags from the luggage check and got on the ferry, which was so full we couldn’t even find seats together. Not a big deal though with only a 20 minute crossing to get us to our next instalment.

Travelogue Italy 3: Naples

NAPOLI

19 June 2017

We hadn’t even intended on visiting Naples, thinking we’d catch an overnight ferry or train from Palermo to Sorrento. We’d ascertained in the travel planning that Naples was the nearest airport to Sorrento, but it hasn’t been in the running… Until budget airline Volotea had their 5th birthday special and I managed to nab 2 one way tickets to Naples for €5 each!

So, there we were, in Palermo with a 7am plane to catch. We booked a taxi on the Sunday night so we’d be sorted for our 5.15 pick-up (Palermo airport is 40 minutes out of the city) and cursed our choices when we had to get up at 4.45 to get ready to leave.

As it turned out, we could have had another 20 minutes sleep because our driver was an absolute maniac – who probably could have taken flight himself at the speed he was driving! – and, thanks to clocking 145kmph on a few occasions? and aggressively driving right up to cars in front and flashing his brights at them, we were at the airport in what must have been record time. Thank heavens it was so early. I can’t imagine how hair-raising the chap must be in traffic!

Volotea turned out to be the greatest budget airline ever. I had had some difficulties doing our online check-in on Sunday (something about a payment type conflict, no doubt because of the international credit card) and dropped a mail to their customer care. They replied within minutes, explaining the problem, apologising for our inconvenience and having concluded the check-in for us. The plane left on time, was empty enough for us to have a row of 3 seats each and arrived at our destination early, with our bags already on the carousel by the time we got there!

Having done our research, we bypassed the taxis and caught the express bus to the harbour, which dropped us off 20 minutes later.

We then had to navigate around the famous landmark, Castel Nuovo, to get to our hotel in the pretty suburb on the other side. Having heard stories about Napoli’s reputation for its crime (always, as a South African, taken with a pinch of salt), we’d erred on the side of caution and avoided staying in the tourist centres, as we usually did for convenient access to the sights and amenities.

We were way too early for check-in, so dumped our suitcases (on instruction, in the corner of the entrance hall – where it would be safe. We’d never do that at home!) and went foraging for food.

It was a lovely morning so we got traditional Caprese Napoli sarmies and went to eat in the park, in the shade, with a view of the sea and the castle.

We’d googled for walking tours and planned to meet the Old City tour that met at the Castle but, while we lingered with our sarmies in the park, the group must have left without us because somehow we’d mixed up the times and the tour was actually 10.30 not 11.

We followed the route the tour was taking anyway, since it obviously covered all the basic must-see stuff. Although there was nothing basic about our first stop, the Piazza del Plebiscite with the ridiculously impressive San Francesco of Paola Basilica on the one side and the Palazzo Reale on the other.

Grandeur to the enth, the Basilica was originally planned as a tribute to Napoleon, but by the time it was finished in 1816 he had already been dethroned so it was converted into a church instead, dedicated to St Francis of Paola who had stayed in a monastery on that site in the 1500s. It’s massive. More massive than massive even, reminiscent of Rome’s Pantheon with a portico resting on six columns and 2 ionic pillars, and a 53m high done beyond housing all sorts of priceless relics and altarpeices.

We wound our way through the Spanish Quarter and up Via Toledo and were thinking this was going to be more of the same – squares, churches, monuments, churches – until we stumbled across something a bit different to do.

We joined the afternoon Napoli Sotterranea tour, going 40m below ground to see what lies beneath the city.

The Greeks, innovators as they were, excavated below Naples (their Neo Polos or “new city”) 4 centuries BC to make cisterns to aid water supply and sustain their new city.

The first cave shows how they carved out the caves in the “soft” rock, excavating small bricks for building houses and big bricks of the darker lava rocks for use constructing the roads and delivering them to ground level using a pulley system through holes in the ground that served as wells when the cavaties were filled. The second cave showed how the cisterns had ladders so that the water could be cleaned “pool guy” style with a chap who would sweep the well using nets, to clean of the dust from the cave and impurities that might have fallen in. After that it’s a series of very narrow tunnels where then water was funneled from one well to another – and a visit to one with water still in it.

These cisterns were drained in 1940 to make bunkers during WWII. The wells were sealed, floors paved and stairs built, allowed for 2000 people to stay in the cavaties for up to 3 days at a time during the raids.

There has been conjecture on how to continue to use the space functionally, so they’re trying out a Botanical project to see what plants can live sustainably underground. It’s 16 degrees and they’re given lots of water and UV lights for 16 hours a day to balance light and dark. There is varying success with the collection of samples, with Basil seeming to be the most prosperous (but I could have told them that, with my bipolar spurts of veggie gardening experience!)

Other ideas were an underground kindergarten (!) and an underground water transportation system with small boats or similar to carry people along the kilometres that the caves cover, but the space was too small.

After the aquaduct tour, we were taken above ground to a building that didn’t look like much more than a block of apartments from the outside but, on entrance to a ground level unit, were shown that this building sat on top of an ancient Roman Theatre!

42 families had unwittingly been housed on top of the theatre for the past 500 or so years when condominiums were built over it during a mammoth urbanisation surge in the burgeoning city. The family in this apartment had been using the theatre’s backstage area as their wine cellar, with its floor trapdoor almost comically covered by a sliding bed that retracted into the wall to reveal it. The cellar had been blocked off from the rest of the theatre until archeologists got hold of it and have now restored the rooms and tunnels to their former structure. The rest of the building is still inhabited as flats though, which is quite unusual, especially since some of their inner windows open into these archeologically revealed passages.

Since the underground tour was close to the meeting place for an evening walking tour we’d decided to do, we hung about in town and had a very premature sundowner in order to get off our feet for a bit.

Turned out that it wasn’t necessary as when we met at the prescribed spot, the tour guide arrived only to tell us that he wasn’t feeling well and although he was I’ll of health, he felt worse for letting us down. He offered to make it up to us with buying us a coffee, but that really would have been insult to injury.

It was 5.30 by now and we had been up since 4.30 and on our feet all day so we admitted defeat and went to the hotel to complete our check-in.

We’d had a completely wonderful and crime-free tourist experience in Napoli, but were still grateful for the hotel we’d chosen as it was in a block of gorgeous art deco buildings, sandwiched between 2 famous landmark castles, on the seafront. A very lovely and relaxing location to end off our day.

We were now very much commited to The Fork – not only because of the discounts, but because the solid recommendations so far gave us a neat way to slim down the options between the abundance of restaurants everywhere we went.

We booked a pizza restaurant to tick off the authentic Neapolitan pizza experience, which is a Margherita garnished with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, to represent the colours of the Italian flag. This formulation was invented by Neapolitan chef Raffaele Esposito in honour of Margherita of Savoy and he’s said to be the first baker ever to add cheese on a pizza. Apparently one of its distinctions is that it must be made with San Marzano tomatoes, which grow on the volcanic plains to the South of Mount Vesuvius, and perhaps give it the sweeter taste to what we’re used to (sort of like the tomato sauce in tinned spaghetti).

Traditionally not a wildly exciting pizza variant at home, we’d ordered the Margherita to share as a starter and then followed up with seafood mains. Christian had his usual seafood pasta with clams and mussels and whatnot and I had an incredible Calamari al forno, which wasn’t what I expected at all. Instead of a sort of pasta bake, it was a large piece of octopus that had been sort of armadillo’ed and over baked. Delicious!

Fed and happy, we walked back to our hotel to call it a night in light of our early start to Capri in the morning.

Travelogue Italy 2: Sicily – Palermo

SICILY – PALERMO

18 June 2017

We arrived into a damp Palermo on the bus after an almost 3 hour ride from Catania. It’d been drizzling a bit as we approached and we were fearful we were in for a rainy day, which we could ill afford since we only had the afternoon to explore Sicily’s capital before moving on to Naples the following day.

Our fears were unfounded and even the small puddles the drizzle had left had already started to dry up.

With only a few hundred metres to our hotel from the bus depot (and, probably more importantly, not a taxi in sight), we moved towards our hotel on foot, our trolley cases clattering on the stone pavements.

Trying not to ruin the walking tour we’d planned for the day, we rushed past the few places of interest we passed en route, and arrived at the Eurostar Central Palace hotel.

Walking into the plush reception, we were pleasantly surprised at the calibre of hotel. We’d booked on the Emirates Rocketmiles website, which claimed the hotel to be 4*, but we’d assumed it to be an oversell based on the price. It was not! Heavenly high ceilings, shiny marble floors and glimmering chandeliers welcomed us as we waited to check in.

We were given our room key; the most impractical massive brass keyring with our room number embossed on it, adorned with a bunch of maroon rope tassels like you normally see on curtain restraints.

Our room was just as nice. And quite different to the Albatro that had been our home in Catania the previous three nights!

Being midday already we were keen to get started… With lunch.

Stepping out of our hotel we found we were located in a vibey shopping street and beelined for the first café for a traditional Palermo experience – a panini and arancini (crumbed and deepfried rice balls, stuffed with mince and ham & cheese respectively). I would have had the baked pasta but *everything* has aubergine!

With a clearer head, having eaten, we were able to get our bearings and map our route.

Our hotel was indeed in prime position, on Via Emanuele Vittorio (the same name as the street the travel agent was in in Catania; mental note to look him up and see why he’s so famous), and we were sandwiched (in more ways than one, thanks to the lifesaving panini) between 2 of the sights on our map, the Quattro Canti and the Piazza Pretoria (there’s a sign for you!)

The Quattro Canti (4 Sides) or, officially, Piazza Vigliena is an octagonal crossing built in the early 1600s made up of four sides being streets and the other four near-identical curved facades of 4-storey Baroque buildings which contain fountains with statues of the seasons and the four Spanish kings of Sicily. The resultant effect is quite spectacular… And was complemented by the horse-and-carriage vendors stationed there looking for patrons.

Piazza Pretoria has a less grand reputation. In the late 1500s, the Senate of Palermo bought a fountain that had been intended for Florence. It was so big that they had to demolish some local homes to make space. Adorned with sixteen nude statues of nymphs and mermaids, the fountain earned the nickname “the Square of Shame”.

Quite the contrary, the epically impressive Cathedrale Di Palermo, consecrated in 1185, dominates a massive block and is really a sight to behold! With lava inlays, it was a very dramatic, magnificently adorned piece of architecture and we were starting to realise that if there was to be one word to describe Palermo, it was to be “impressive”!

Using a very simple tourist map, it was easy to negotiate the city and impossible to miss the landmarks on account of their scale. Those Romans didn’t muck about when it came to putting together a church / theatre / piazza – and there were several of each. 

We’d round a corner and see an impressive building, consult the map and it was just the lowly local church. And when I say local, I mean micro-local since there was a church on just about every corner!

It worked very much to our benefit that we were touristing on a Sunday. The roads were quiet and there was ample opportunity to take good pics of the famous buildings that must be swamped during the week seeing as they are still in functional operation. Plenty of shops were still open though and the roads were buzzing with shoppers and socialisers out enjoying their Sunday, and the pleasure of the closed off pedestrian streets free from the crazy drivers.

We did accidentally happen upon some sort of major religious ceremony, with scores of groups parading in procession – with each having a heralded flag thing in front and everything – in front of a magnificent church with a sermon and hymns being belted out from loudspeakers mounted on the lamposts. There were even Scout and Girl Guides groups in attendance, so we knew they meant business.

We’d discovered the church parade while looking for our dinner restaurant – another reservation through The Fork – but we’re disappointed to see that it was shut tight. Perhaps because of the parade, perhaps not, but it left us without a plan, so we took a seat at a sidewalk Café and – with the sun still high in the sky – did some people-watching, rich with content with the droves of passersby.

The benefit of our vantage point was observing the restaurant’s menu in real-life and, despite ourselves (since the only thing we’d agreed earlier on that we wouldn’t have for dinner was pizza), ended up ordering a 3-pork pizza (bacon, sausage and salami) that turned out to be quite delicious.

Travelogue Italy 1: Sicily – Catania

SICILY – CATANIA

16-18 June 2017

We had a skrik of a start to Sicily, with our taxi driver – having torn through town, including what appeared to be a pedestrian shopping street – dropping us off in front of a very large, very closed wooden door. We pressed the intercom for “Albatro Rooms”, but got no response.

Checked the booking form, but there was no phone number. Checked for free WiFi to Google for a number, but there was none. Pressed the button again. Repeatedly.

The door opened. A bewildered woman glared at us, swatted past us to put her garbage down, being careful to block the doorway with her body. We tried to ask her for info on Albatro, but got the blank eyes of someone who really truly doesn’t understand you.

She closed the door. With us on the outside.

Christian had seen a Vodafone sign on our drive in, so we figured if we could get a SIM card then we’d be back in business. Suitcases ‘n all, we trundled down the road.

Obviously the shop was closed (it was 10.30pm after all).

A lady walking past noticed our obvious distress and stopped to offer us help. She Googled the hotel and got a number; called it, but there was no response.

She asked where the hotel was and when we pointed, she offered to come there with us to see if she could broker entrance (or information) for us with our future neighbours. It was very kind of her because, by now, we were several blocks away from the hotel.

We made our way back, Christian and I on either side of her to make sure she didn’t attempt to lose us. She managed to get the attention of the night desk and, after thanking her profusely and repeatedly, we were soon being led by Antonio up into the building and to our room (which, although very basic, was massive).

It was nearly midnight and although we could hear from the music and laughter leaking in through the windows that the city of Catania still had lots of life left in her for the night, we did not.

The hotel provided breakfast in the form of a voucher for a coffee shop down the road. It was a simple but deliciously light and fresh pastry (custard for me; jam for Christian) and juice or coffee.

Having no wi-fi in the hotel and too-weak-to-be-useful wi-fi in the coffee shop, first order of business was to get connected. A great decision and €20 later we were 10gb richer… And on our way to the Tourist Office, passing the ruins of Roman Amphitheatre on the way.

We firmed our choices as down the coast to Siracusa (by bus) on the first day and up the coast to Etna (on a private tour) for the second day.

20 minutes later we were on the bus heading South when I got a message from an old friend from home, saying she was currently living in Siracusa and we simply must come and visit. Kismet seeing as we were on the way already!

We agreed to meet on the bridge between Siracusa and the Old Town, Ortygia, at midday. And we did.

Lynne-Marie had moved to Siracusa 2 years prior, so was well-versed to show us around, point out the sights and filling us in on life in Sicily in general, including her very interesting job processing refugees from North Africa who apparently arrive on the Sicilian shores in their droves in summer.

We talked as we walked into Ortygia, the small island historical centre of Siracusa (Syracuse in English), which contains many historical landmarks.

Lynne was our kind of tour guide, starting with a mandatory visit to what she termed The Best gelato shop, so how could we not? The cold, creamy gelato was welcome on such a hot day, which we were told was mid-thirties degrees and could flirt with 40 later on! Plus, we were in Old Town Square with the magnificent Cathedral in front of us, so the gelato surely doubled as a cultural experience??

We wandered around the outline of Ortygia Island, taking in the picture-perfect sea, appreciating even the mildest breath of breeze that came from it and absorbing the buzz that came with the cafe lifestyle on our left and beachlovers on our right.

Almost at the end of our walk we came to Castello Maniance, which usually allows tours but they turned us away because they were closed for a film shoot.

We’d worked up a thirst so ended off refreshments at a sidewalk cafe close to where we’d met earlier?, with a great view of the ruins of a Roman Amphitheatre that had once seated thousands of people (in the baking heat) watching gladiators fight wild animals to the death (in the baking heat) which, beyond gruesome, all sounded quite exhausting!

Lynne had other existing plans for the later afternoon so we parted ways, grateful for the couple of hours with our personal tour guide.

We’d skipped lunch (disinterested because it was so hot) but there was an oasis of a fruit juice stand at the bus stop where we got a freshly-squeezed fruit juice slush that was pure heaven!! The kiosk owner was so tickled at my delight that he gave me a frozen melon as well!

An hour in the bus back to Catania wasn’t as labourious as it might usually have been, thanks to the comfy coach and air-conditioning and soon we were entering the city limits again, with the sun still high in the sky so there would be plenty of time to explore our homebase.

With our trusty tourist map in hand, we worked through the list of sights. With most clustered on our road (Via Etnea) and around the tourist office (Via Vittorio Emanuele II), we were comfortable with our surrounds and ticked off the essentials at record pace – church, university, palace, church, fountain, monument, church, piazza, cathedral, monument, Basilica sort of thing.

Very sweaty from our day out, we decided to go home to clean up before dinner so ambled up our road, browsing and shopping as we went (in no hurry since shops only shut at 8). At the one shop we bought at, the cashier gave us a brilliant free gift; a beach towel that folded into a zip-up bag. We were so delighted with the ‘present’ that we have her one back – the melon the juice guy has given us. She was beside herself at our gesture (although must have been wondering why we were walking around with cold melons on us).

Dinner was as yet undecided so we consulted a few sources and discovered that there was a concentrated pocket of options in a few square blocks in the Old Town. Less than a kilometres walk, we decided to take our chances.

We walked up and down a few streets consulting menus, but our final choice was made at first sight when we spotted some activity down an alleyway.

Following a group in, the alleyway opened onto a courtyard where a couple of restaurants? had chairs and tables set up, that were near full already.

We got a cosy table at the back and proceeded to be served incredible food. Unsure of portion sizes, fearing that pasta might be a course rather than a main (based on the prices) we had hedged our bets with ordering 2 pastas (€7 each) and 1 main course (€4) and proceeded to be served a mountain of pasta!

Christian’s seafood pasta was teeming with mussels and calamari and topped with an enormous prawn; my carbonara was easily the best I’ve ever had. Our main course extra, which the waiter automatically served as a savoury dessert was rolled pork, thinly sliced and rolled with onions and cheese, crumbed and deep fried. Superb!

Having sat down to dinner after 10, we were grateful for the walk home to shift some of the feast so that we could get rested for the big day tour the next day.

 SATURDAY

Our tour was starting at 9am from the travel agent next to the tourist office so, comfortable that it was only a short walk, we had time to get to the coffee shop up the road for our complimentary breakfast. Christian had the same jam Danish, but I switched to the pain au chocolat… Which was crammed to bursting with creamy chocolate filling! Unbelievably good!

We trotted down the hill and seeing as we had 20 minutes to spare, took a turn past the morning fish market, which took place in the area behind the palace and adjacent to the bus terminus – 2 points that had seemed so far from each other the day before when the turf was still foreign and two-dimensional on the map.

The fish market is exactly what you’d expect – damp, noisy and smelly. Fishermen we peddling reams of silver shiny sardines and anchovies, while butchers were carving up enormous tuna and swordfish. The resultant blocks of tuna on display were so big and richly coloured that they could easily be mistaken for sides of beef! And the swordfish cuts were bookended on their display with the head and the tail so were unmistakeable.

We met back at the travel agent and were introduced to our travel mates for the day: a group of 4 French people and an Aussie couple. Our driver arrived and we all hopped in the Mercedes people-carrier; Christian and I sitting up front with the driver, an Italian who spoke fluent French (we understood his explanation to the French contingent that he’d lived in Cannes for 4 years), but little English.

It was a picturesque drive (after the nail-biting exit from the city – Sicilian drivers are every bit as aggressive and crazy as their reputation!) with an audio soundtrack telling us all about the places we were visiting.

We could see Etna almost all of the journey, being such a large and distinctive landmark at 3346 metres high, making it the biggest in Europe and one of the biggest in the world.

Formed over hundreds of thousands of years with construction and destruction, it’s humbling to realise that the gulf that became the volcano that we know today was only defined in the last couple of thousand years – so is as much a part of our “modern” history as all of our stories of our human civilisation.

There are 59000 hectares of park around Etna to protect the fauna and flora, all within the province of Catania, so it was a pretty, scenic drive to where we would be visiting the Silvestri craters, being 5 craters formed from the 1892 eruption.

Etna emits more energy than a nuclear bomb, expelling lava rocks bigger than a car for hundreds of metres and flowing lava that covers everything in its path. The Sicilians at least have been making use of the lava and  I use it to make stone blocks for roads and buildings, which give the buildings a gritty greyness that can be mistaken for needing a wash. We stopped at a house that had been excavated from the lava; frighteningly well preserved as the lava had instantly set it.

There were already scores of cyclists making their way up the mountain. Very brave with the exhuberant and very aggressive drivers that even put our South African taxi to shame in the ‘hazardous’ stakes!

Back in the bus, we wound our way upward and were soon at the craters with an hour and a half to explore.

Our timing was a bit off because we were told short on time to catch the cable car up to the next vantage point (2500m) and we’d just missed the sightseeing train that ran between the 5 craters at Silvestri.

Fortunately, we’re not afraid of a walk, so we set off towards the first crater and were soon at the bottom of it looking up at the rim and imagining what it must’ve been like when it erupted (and hoping it had no intention of a repeat performance today!)

The second crater was much of the same, but deeper and blacker so a bit more sinister.

The trek from crater to crater was a bit of a mission with the sides quite steep and the lava gravel quite slippery, so we bypassed the other craters in favour of a walk to the viewing point to take in the panorama.

Peckish from all the walking, we took the opportunity to sample arancini, rice balls stuffed (ours were mince and cheese), crumbed and deepfried. Delicious!

Being first back at the van, we opened the back and swapped our sneakers for slops. While we were doing so, the Aussies returned and, wordlessly, moved our things from the front into the back where they’d been sitting, taking the front seats for themselves. While not a problem, it seemed like an odd thing to do.

The next stop was a couple of hours beachtime to swim and have some lunch. The driver gave us the option of bigger, busier sandy Naxos or smaller, prettier pebble-beach Isola Bella. The group chose the latter, but the driver still stopped at Naxos for us to take some snaps. Looked like we’d made a good choice as every inch of the beach was covered in loungers and umbrellas and the sidewalk the same with cafe tables and chairs.

Isola Bella was busy too, clearly catering directly to the needs of the upmarket resorts that nestled in the steep hillsides surrounding the cove, but very pretty with a little island in the middle of the bay that you could access by crossing a section that had slightly less than ankle-deep water.

We had a wander around, lazed in the water and then appreciated the relief from being in the open sun when we took up a table at the most modest of the restaurants, a little courtyard cafe with pleasant music and great panini.

When our time was up we made our way up the stairs, back to the road and our meeting point… To find we’d once again been re-seated. The Aussies had moved our bag back to the front and were back in their old seats! We exchanged a chuckle with the driver, who made up for his lack of English with a shrug and a smile.

It really made little difference as the next stop was a short hop up the hill to Castelmola, a medieval castle and citadel so named because of the molar shaped big rock on which it’s built.

We enjoyed a wander around its old stone alleyways, trying to find the viewing points that offered spectacular views of the panorama on all sides. We marvelled at how the 2000 odd locals nowadays cope with getting up and down the hill, let alone the poor slobs who had to build the place all those hundreds of years ago seeing as the medieval city only got steps in 1928 to make it accessible!

The last stop was Taormina, a famously beautiful town set on the hillside overlooking the coast, where the who’s who come to enjoy the NINE 5* hotels this small town boasts!

We were given a couple of hours to experience the historical sights (the Greek Theatre ruins and the Roman relics that were engrained in the town itself) and do some (in our case, window-) shopping. We enjoyed a wander around, took the pics that needed taking and settled at the town’s Irish Pub to log a Guinness on our Index.

Returning to the van at the 6pm meeting time, we’d once again been rehomed and my bag was neatly placed where the Aussies wanted us to sit. So we did. And enjoyed the comfort of the bigger seats in the back while they crammed in the front (where the middle seat is slimmed to accommodate the gear lever).

We were back at the travel agent by 6.45 and delighted to see that the city was a hive of activity, clearly come to life after siesta and ready to rock Saturday night.

We made our way up the hill towards our hotel, stopping to buy a few things – made attractive even in Euros thanks to the summer sales, and made more delightful thanks to their unwavering commitment to ‘gift with purchase’.

We got back to our room with an hour or so to rest and refresh before our 9pm dinner reservation at a place I’d found on an app called The Fork (run/endorsed by TripAdvisor) that was near to the area we’d enjoyed the night before.

The restaurant was great and we flipped our strategy from the previous night and shared a broccoli and pork sausage pasta to start and then a tuna steak and stuffed calamari for mains, washed down with a lovely Sicilian red. When the bill came, we’d gotten a whopping 50% off (€28) for booking through The Fork! Would definitely be looking into more of that for the rest of the trip!

The whole town was alive on our walk back to our hotel and even though approaching midnight, there were still families with children socialising and relaxing in and around the square. It seemed a shame to call it a night, but we were *finished* from our long day’s sightseeing.

SUNDAY

Having decided on the 9am bus to Palermo, we had time in the morning for a run.

Our position on Via Etnea was perfect for it and we started with running up the hill to the end, then the entire downhill to the fountain/palace/fish market piazza (which was deserted so would have made for perfect photos if we weren’t so sweaty and unsightly) and then back up the hill to our rooms. Almost 5km and 30 minutes on the nose.

Showered and packed, we enjoyed our last pastry at Misterlino (the most magnificent custard croissant!) before rolling our cases all the way back down the hill (cursing the Romans and their relentless cobblestones) to the bus terminus to go to Palermo.

Travelogue Malta 2: Gozo

MALTA – GOZO

12-15 June 2017

MONDAY

We’d pre-arranged with our Airbnb hostess, Rosella, to get us a taxi for 9am to drive us to the port to catch the ferry to Gozo.

The 40-odd minute drive took us up the coast through several villages which had all but met to make a continuous thread of habitation. While the houses are generally attractive (or at least interesting, with decorative doorways, balconies and bay windows), there is a distinct lack of grass in these towns and suburbs. As we’d note in Sliema, besides being largely apartment living, everything is paved so there is little to no greenery anywhere. While understandable in a city like Sliema or Valletta, it was surprising that this was also the case in the rural and small towns? too.

Arriving at the ferry in perfect time, we grabbed our tickets and waited to board.

The ferry was a lot bigger than we’d have expected – a bit like a poor man’s cruiseship, obviously to cater for the hoardes of daytrippers – and we were lucky to get a window table in the canteen for the short 20 minute journey, to the destination we could already see from our departure point.

Our host, Frank, was waiting for us and was hard to miss in his florescent green shirt. He took our bags, armed us with a pack of island map, tourist map, map of Victoria and a bus timetable and packed us onto the 303 bus for a few hours exploring the island while he finished evac’ing the current tenants and readied the place for us.

The bus journey to Victoria (the capital, in the middle of the island) took longer than anticipated, with a 45 minute standing transfer in a crammed stuffy bus, and deposited us at the bus terminal in the centre of town.

The main attraction in Victoria is the Cittadella, which was an easy walk and, as an imposing yellow building that dominated the skyline, impossible to miss.

The Visitors Centre revealed that 12000 years ago a land bridge stretched from Sicily to North Africa. When sealevels rose after the last ice age, this land bridge was submerged leaving its high points to form the islands of Gozo and Malta. Natural forces shaped a flat hilltop on which the Citadel was built.

Our timing was spot-on and as we finished reading the neat collection of exhibits, we were able to walk straight into the English version of the video presentation (quite convenient timing since it rotates in 6 languages), which told the story of the Citadel in a dramatic 9 minute narrative with visuals that moved around all 4 walls of the small square room.

We then wandered around the rest of the Citadel, enjoying spectacular views of all of Gozo and the sea surrounding it as well as the exhibits and ruins within the walls, postulating on what the various sections might have looked like and what functions they performed all those centuries ago when this was the civilisation of the island. And imagining the Napoleonic invasion – and predictable ensuing French concession. The poor Maltese and Gozitans have certainly had their fair share of pillage and plunder and it’s no wonder that Malti is such a mix of so many influences.

There wasn’t much else open in Victoria since the signs in most shop windows indicated that they observe siesta and were shut from 12.30 to 4, to reopen until 7.

Hungry and lazy, this was no problem. We used the opportunity to sample the pastizzeria that all the tour guide books had recommended. As a quick grab-and-go option, the mini cheese pies and peas pies did the job and worked well with the setting; the lush little park across from the bus terminus (that seemed to be the only grassy patch in Gozo from what we’d seen!)

The return bus journey was much more comfortable, with enough seats for everyone, and deposited us almost at our doorstep.

Frank was ready and waiting for us and showed us around our apartment, starting with the very impressive ground floor level that housed a washing machine and a generous selection of holiday accessories and equipment, including bicycles, snorkel gear, beach gear (brollies, boards, buckets, spades…), games, shopper bags… You name it, Frank had thought of it (and it was all included in the price!)

Starting all the way at the top, Frank showed us around the 3rd floor, which was to be mine and Christian’s flatlet; a double en-suite room with a kitchenette/lounge and a huge terrace off the room and another off the kitchenette, leading to yet another on the rooftop. Frank’s detail was painstaking, down to lifting the sheets to show us the brand of mattress, showing us the stock of pillows (that included down, hard, soft and memory-foam) and even a tutorial on how to use the mixer taps.

We finished the tour with the middle floor, which was home to the lounge, another terrace, the diningroom, kitchen?, 2 more bedrooms and a bathroom.

Frank, bless him, had some pies (the same ones we’d just had in Victoria) and traditional ftira in the oven and had laid the table in the kitchen for us to sit and sample his wares, washed down with a bottle of Gozo Rosé.

When we were done, he called us to the diningroom? table to work through a selection of maps and timetables to help us plan our time in Gozo. There was so much to do and see and he’d worked through everything in such detail that by the time he left we all just flopped in the lounge to catch our communal breath!

Being a Monday, both of the restaurant options Frank had recommended were closed so we decided to make use of our lovely home and considerable leftovers from the second lunch Frank had surprised us with, with dinner in. This would require a visit to the supermarket, which we’d been told was on the road down to the Harbour so, being Sundowners-o’clock anyway, we made our way down the hill to see what we could see.

No more than a 10 minute walk, we were delighted by the nest of restaurants and pubs that lined the crescent of the Harbour opposite the ferry building.

We ambled past, reviewing a few of the menus on display outside, but got lured into the Gleneagle, busiest by far with a full row of patrons occupying the single row of benches lining the gallery balcony looking down on where we were walking and surveying the harbour and general activity.

The inside was equally charming with an garish fishing theme, complete with massive fish and crabs and lobsters and eels and propellers and such decorating the walls, and fishing nets hanging from the double-volume ceiling.

Across the road from the supermarket, Alex and I made a quick satellite mission to grab our dinner supplies without losing our prime people-watching position at the bar, taking in locals and clearly not-so-locals alike while we wiled away the evening with the sun still in the sky, and it still felt too early for dinner.

Which was worth the wait, with a new appreciation for the pastries, having given them a few hours between sittings and combining with a crunchy green salad.

TUESDAY

The next morning we got up later than planned (just after 8) so adjusted our original thinking of catching a ferry across to Comino Island – a small sister island that we can see from many of our terraces. The island is a big tourist destination with its perfectly clear-water lagoon and azure caves, so we had been told that if you’re not there early, the sea becomes people soup and ruins the experience.

We thought instead we’d catch the bus up to the North of Gozo and explore the many beaches, snorkelling spots and the famous traditional salt pans.

Easier said than done. On the cusp of the busy season, the buses were still operating on shoulder schedules and we were awkwardly between the bus options from ferry port and the bus stop outside our house.

It was also, although only 10am, already searingly hot, so our short wait at the bus stop motivated us to consider renting a car (to avoid future searingly hot bus stop waits during the day). A quick Google and Alex was on the phone with Jamie, arranging to collect a car from the ferry port for a very reasonable €35 a day which, seeing as there were 3 of us, wasn’t much more than we’d have spent on bus rides with the amount of adventuring we intended to do.

Jamie met us and took us to collect the car, a compact little Hyundai, and we were soon on the road, relying on dodgy maps and you-can-see-where-you-are-and-where-you’re-going-from-almost-everywhere good sense to head in the direction of Ramla Bay.

The beach lives up to its name, with a distinctive red sand (“Ramla” is Malti for “red”). We set up camp (with the beach towels and brolly from our holiday home) and headed for the water, which was welcome and refreshing in what was now the midday sun.

It was great to flake on the towels in the shade and watch the day (and a little Yellow Lab puppy 2 brollies down from us – a real cutey called Max) go by…

It was really (really really) hot… Even for a beach day, so an hour or so of lounging later, we picked up the roadtrip and drove over to Marsalforn for lunch.

Yet another beautiful spot, Masalforn’s harbour with its idyllic crystal blue water and bobbing yachts was a brilliant backdrop for a feast and our seafood pasta was worthy of the scenery, in which we were virtually engulfed since we were sitting at the very edge of the dock with water on 3 sides of us.

After lunch we wandered into a dive shop and set up a dive for the following day at 11.30. While details were short on where we’d be doing the dive or what we could expect to see, our hopes were high that everything under water was as spectacular as what we’d seen above.

The rest of the afternoon was then launched with snorkelling at Xwenji Bay, a delightful shallow sheltered bay, perfect for having a flop around and stalking the little fish that inhabited the mossy, grassy bits on the sea floor.

We could see the famous salt pans from the bay, so headed on foot to see them up close.

Salt production has been a thing in these parts since Roman times and there are still families that farm and harvest salt in the traditional manner. The pans are basins carved into the soft limestone cliffs on the water’s edge. Varying in size and shape, the majority seem to be no more than a foot deep and the premise is that each pan is filled with sea water and left to evaporate, leaving the salt behind. The salt is then swept up (literally, there were people with brooms sweeping the salt in each pan into heaps) and collected to be bagged and sold. For a princely sum too, with tourists lapping up kilo bags at €8 a pop!

We returned to the car, intending to drive to the next recommended bay (Wied Il-Ghasri) for another refreshing snorkel, but we got a bit lost and ended up in a fjordlike inlet called Naghag Il-Bahar instead. It was a narrow strip of pebble beach with several people already so we gave it a skip and continued the search to Wied Il-Mielah, a natural rock arch that had risen suddenly to fame since the much more famous and spectacular Azure Window collapsed into the sea. Such is life with limestone I guess; easy come, easy go.

We struggled a bit to find it since all the narrow roads look the same and some looked unlikely to be roads at all. Google Maps was even having a little trouble getting us there. In the end it was as private Segway tour that lead us to it. We’d crossed paths a few times on our mission and when we saw the group off their vehicles and posing at the edge of a cliff, we figured they knew something we didn’t. They did. And we too were soon happy-snapping picture of ourselves with the impressive natural arch over the bluer-than-blue sea.

Feeling accomplished after all our adventuring, we headed home for much-needed showers and, redressed and refreshed, adjourned to our roof terrace to watch the sun go down from the comfort of our swing chair, with the Gozo wine we’d left chilling in the fridge.

Of course it was still light when we left home for dinner at Ta’Philip – as recommend by Frank – a hundred or so metres down our road.

A stunning restaurant and clearly a local legend by all the awards and photos on the wall in the entrance, Ta’Philip also only offered a 0km menu, meaning everything served was sourced super-locally and consequently the entire menu was only 1 page.

Still, we each chose something quite different and all were ridiculously good! Alex’s suckling pig was enormous, Christian’s swordfish buttery and my Bragioli (beef olive of sorts) super-duper. The owner came to check on us and gave us a sample of his homemade sambuca, which was very aniseedy and smoother than most but, well, still sambuca. It was a good thing we were stumbling distance from home!

WEDNESDAY

We’d booked our dive for 11h30 to give us enough time to do something beforehand and to be underwater for the worst heat of the day.

The thing we chose to do beforehand was a bike ride east through Qala to Hondoq Beach, which Frank said was his favourite. Christian passed, so Alex and I helmeted up and hit the road.

It was already quite warm, but fortunately it was a relatively easy ride into Qala along a flat road with little built along it so we could enjoy the magnificent views of the sea as we pedalled.

After Qala, the road became quite steep downhill so, figuring that what goes down has to come up again (at considerably more effort), we turned around and repeated the return ride home.

Shortly we were off again, hopping in our little car to hightail across the island like seasoned pro’s to get to the dive shop for our 11am briefing. It was quite a laboured process with a DVD, a quiz, a recap by the dive master and then a test (underwater) on our skills, so we only set off on the main dive at around 12.30 in the end.

To our disappointment, the dive was around Marsalforn Bay itself, probably because our dive companion, Audrey from France, was a first-timer, who seemed quite nervous (no doubt because all the instructions had been in English!).

It was pleasant enough. Even though there wasn’t whole lot of exciting stuff to see (random fish, grassy sections on the ocean floor etc), the fact that the water was crystal clear and we could see a good 30 metres was remarkable in itself.

With a Maltese dive under our belts, we headed over to the South Coast of the island for lunch in Xlendi. Quite different to the other places we’d seen, this bay was a harbour with no beach per sé, but loads of little step ladders into the water from the rock walls that formed the harbour’s basin.

We ate ourselves silly (again!) and then took a walk to the end of the bay, finding a smaller offshoot channel which we first crossed using the bridge at the end so we could get to the mouth of Xlendi Bay proper to take photos of the incredible cliffs and beautiful harbour from its source.

Then we returned to the inlet and scaled down the rocks to where a handful of people had had the same idea as us. One of the couples was very friendly and pointed out where the ladder was to get into the water and where we’d see the most fish.

We had our snorkels and masks with us so we descended into the water and paddled about a bit, admiring what there was to see since it was very deep but still very clear.

I even took an uncharacteristic leap from one of the high rocks and, thanks to Christian’s masterful capturing of the moment on camera, I never have to do it again!

Since we were halfway between home and what we’d planned for sunset – the Azure Window / inland sea / Fungus Rock combo, as per Frank’s suggestion – and it was already 5pm we figured we’d get ahead of the game and go straight there.

A good call because there wasn’t as much to see as anticipated.

The Azure Window was a magnificent natural arch that had stood 28 metres high. It was formed by raging waves crashing against a jutting out section of the cliff face and wearing away at the soft(ish) stone, leaving behind a column in the sea with an arch joining it to the land. Until it collapsed last March.

There is still a stump of the arch visible in the sea and many happy swimmers were clustered on the stump having their photo taken on the relic of what was, clearly blissfully unaware of what we could see from our vantage point – a massive boulder barely clinging to the raw edge where the arch had separated from the land, which we mused, based on the length of the crack, had minutes before it fell to the sea, but in geological terms probably had decades.

Fungus Rock, as underwhelming as its name, was a short walk across a series of (what looked like) natural salt pans and was quite an unremarkable lump of rock just off the coastline.

The Inland Sea was a bit more exciting and was a small shell-shaped bay which at first examination seemed to be enclosed. Boat garages (some with boats inside, some furnished and one serving as a cafe) along the crescent of the shell were the clue to looking on the cliff face that formed the rest of its border and revealed a cave inlet that we found out opened into a 26 metre cave that joins to the sea. Apparently you can swim through it, but we settled with sitting on a jetty and dipping our feet into the cool water.

We returned to our house and in a rush of ambition Christian and I decided to take a run (to clock the Vitality points for the week). I recommended the road to Qala, on the premise that I knew it was flat and, mostly, because it was supposed to be 3 km to Hondoq and it would be nice to see the beach that had evaded our bike run in the morning.

We set out and found it relatively easy-going, thanks largely to leaving it until almost 7pm before we set out. Unfortunately though, I got us lost by taking a wrong turn and in a misguided effort to rectify the route, we got stuck in a maze of unkempt allotments, earning a few minor scratches and a full side of blackjacks for our trouble. We abandoned the mission and turned to head home, adding on an extra bit to run into our little town centre to the church we’d seen as a landmark on one of our drives (not that churches make a good landmark on Gozo usually since there are SO many of them!)

Arriving home, a welcome shower and fresh unblackjacked clothes later, we set off for dinner, to the other place Frank had recommended, Country Terrace.

It was a bit fancier than anticipated, but the view of the bay and Comino beyond was breathtaking! And the fresh local calamari and medium rare tuna steak were out of this world. A worthy Last Supper indeed.

THURSDAY

Making the most of our short stay, we’d itineraried down to the very last second. With intentions of catching the first ferry to Comino at 8am and Jamie coming to collect the rental car at 11, we called Frank on Wednesday evening for a powwow on how to manage our morning in conjunction with his plans.

Although he was expecting his next set of guests on the 11.15 ferry he was, as always, very accommodating and suggested that we pack up before we went to Comino so that he could clean while we were out, leaving only what we’d need for a shower and change before our departure, for which he would leave the upstairs bathroom at our disposal. Great plan.

We got up before 7, packed up, cleaned up and used all our leftovers to make epic bacon, egg and cheese breakfast rolls for our excursion?.

An hour later we drove down to the ferry, well in time… Except for the fact that there is no parking at the harbour. Alex and I got out the car to get the ferry tickets and were very concerned that Christian was going to miss the boat… Until he came hurtling round the corner at the very 11th hour. He’d found a spot in the reserved section for ferry management and had disregarded the warnings of clamping in the hope that we’d be overlooked in the couple of hours we planned on being away.

The ferry is a short hop and no more than 10 minutes later we were alighting at the jetty on Comino, Gozo’s little sister island.

Although about 3.5 square kilometres, the action on Comino all happens around 2 microscopic beaches. Right from the jetty, there are blue and white striped sunchairs wedged side-by-side on every inch of the flat sections adjacent to the little golden sand crescents no more than a few metres long. The rest of the beachfront is very rocky crags; not amazing for sitting on, really lousy without shoes on.

We went to the farthest point and ate our breakfast rolls, surveying the beautiful Blue Lagoon, and then hobbled down to try it for ourselves.

The water is crystal clear and you can see to the bottom, with more white golden sand. The lagoon forms a channel between Comino and its tiny twin, Cominito, which is an easy swim across so we paid it a visit. A very rocky outcrop with a small pebble beach and a few caves (that you can access from a boat tour, which we’d passed on).

We’d been there barely an hour and already the day-visitors were streaming in, so we decided to keep our memories pure and caught the 9.15 ferry back.

With some unexpected time on our hands, we finally got to visit Hondoq! A small and secluded bay at the bottom of a hill after Qala that would have been a challenge had we made it that far on either bike or foot.

The bay offers a large concrete jetty with stepladders into the water or, as we chose, a wedge of pebble/sand beach accessing (yet another) wonderous stretch of azure water. This island never ceased to amaze!

After a good half hour’s dipping, we had to return to fulfil our obligations and catch the 12 o’clock ferry back to Malta to begin the next instalment of our adventures.

Travelogue Malta 1: Sliema

TRAVELOGUE MALTA

10-12 June 2017

Dab hands at Friday departures, a carless me was fetched from the office by an unfettered from-home Christian and we were on the road to ORT by 3.30; an easy feat from my office, which is conveniently located for little but the airport hop.

With our routine of checking the car into a valet service for the duration (which means being met at Departures by a driver) and spending our waiting time at the Emirates lounge, the only wildcards were the check-in and Passport Control queues, both of which were surprisingly civilised for a Friday afternoon.

The flight was packed so we got little more than a couple of hours sleep on the leg to Dubai, and welcomed the short transfer time to take the opportunity to shower and refresh (ie salmon and Moet) in the brand new lounge in Terminal C where we were to catch our connecting flight.

The connection to Malta made another stop for an hour in Larnaca (Cyprus), which was actually worth it as we let off considerably more people than we took on, so ended up with a full row of 4 seats each to stretch out and get a good solid hour’s deep sleep.

We arrived 35 minutes early to a perfect sunny day in Malta. Blue skies, not a cloud and that just-right temperature where you’re basking but not sweating. This holiday was going to be exactly our sort of thing!

Alex had arranged a driver to collect us from the airport so we just had to get our bags and then find the guy holding the board with our name on it.

And there he was, waiting front and centre, so a quick stop past the ATM and we were on the road.

A big jovial fella, Rainier gave us the basics need-to-knows about Malta as he drove, mixing tourist and sightseeing info with historical and economic insights to give us quite well-rounded introduction to this tiny (316 square kilometres) island and its 460,000 odd indigenous Maltese people.

No more than a 20 minute journey into town, the roads became quite narrow as we twisted down toward the seafront where our apartment was. Shops and homes line the streets, with front doors straight onto the pavement, often with cars lipped onto most of the sidewalk. This was clearly a city built in a different time where traffic and parking had no bearing!

Rainier pulled up at our door and we were welcomed by our friends, Alex and Robbie, who had arrived as an advance party on Thursday night.

Our apartment was clearly a basement conversion as we had a – very glamourous marble – flight of steps down to an entrance hall offering the first twin bedroom and a passage to the rest of the house.

The house was entirely sandstone so it was cool and slightly, but not unpleasantly, damp with a warm glow to it from a combination of the yellow stone walls and clever lighting, from uplighters dotted along the skirting and natural light filtering from alcoves in each room that had a grating from the pavement above as its roof.

Moving into the main house, we discovered another twin bedroom, communal bathroom, kitchen with table and chairs, large living room and master en-suite bedroom, where we put our bags down and immediately changed into shorts.

Enjoying a welcome ice-cold Cisk (pronounced “Chisk”) with our friends, we languished the comfy corner couch and marvelled at our surrounding while catching up on the last few months and roughly planning the next few days.

Our first excursion was a cultural adventure of sorts, which involved heading down our street, the half block it took to spit us out at the harbour where, conveniently, the ferry from Sliema to Valletta docked just across the road.

With the Valletta ferry port only a few hundred metres away, the wait was longer than the trip itself, but well worth it for the short ride across Marsamxett Harbour, past Manoel Island, named after the Grandmaster of the Knights who fortified it, and towards the wonderous backdrop golden sun-lit picture of Baroque splendour and robust fortification that makes the Valletta skyline.

We wound our way through the town, taking in buildings and statues that looked consequential… But not allowing them to distract us from our mission. The Pub on Archbishop Street, which was where actor Oliver Reed (who was staying in Malta while shooting Gladiator) saw his untimely demise on a notorious drinking spree that saw him clock 8 pints of lager, 12 double rums and 14 whiskeys before collapsing and dying of a heart attack.

We had no such ambitions, so had a couple of pints of Guinness (logging #20 on the Index) and made our way back to Sliema for dinner.

It was still light as day when we got back to Sliema at around 19h30 so we stopped for a sundowner at the lively strip of bars facing the harbour, before making our way down a side street to find the restaurant that had been our choice of the options we’d researched online.

It didn’t disappoint and we shared a platter of traditional Maltese nibblybits to start, before the main event seafood pasta and Maltese sausage pasta (with tasters of Alex’s veal and Robbie’s lamb to make for a rounded experience).

Stuffed to the hilt, we followed the sound of cheering to find a political procession of sorts on the road along the waterfront. There were big flatbed trucks with merrymakers and flag-flyers cavalcaded by scores of cars hooting and flashing in support. One little hatchback had about 20 youngsters standing out the sunroof and hanging out the windows cheering and waving!

Blissfully unaware of why, but totally in awe of how passionately everyone was celebrating, we stepped into the Labour Party Bar and asked the bartender what was going on. While he poured us Jagerbombs, he explained the Labour Party had won some sort of election last Sunday and everyone was still celebrating! There was even a celebration concert being held in town, and he turned on the TV so we could see.

The Prime Minister – a friendly looking chap in his mid-thirties – was giving a quick speech (in Malti, but obviously about their win) and encouraging the celebrations. It’s heartwarming to see how politically engaged the young people are – probably because their leaders seem to balance the Labour and Party in their name.

After a long journey, we were happy to head back to have a nightcap in our comfy holiday home and leave further adventures for the next day.

There’s little better than a good, long night’s sleep, waking up with natural light rather than a buzzing alarm clock!

Such was Day 1 (proper) of The Malta Experience.

We were to catch the Hop On Hop Off bus to do the South route, primarily to visit the Sunday morning fish market and to see the Blue Grotto. This gave enormous flexibility as the buses departed every hour on the quarter-past, so we didn’t stretch ourselves too much, aiming for the one at 10.15. This meant leaving the house at 9.45 in order to grab a traditional Maltese Ftira (elaborate sandwich on a disc-shaped semi-flatbread, similar to a ciabatta) at the kiosk directly opposite the bus stop, which ticked all the boxes nicely.

The bus arrived perfectly on time, which seemed like an obvious… But was destined to be a moving target over the course of the day.

The first leg took us on the North route bus around the bay to Valletta, where the driver recommended that we alight at the stop before the usual crossover of the 2 routes at the Valletta Waterfront stop, because there was a docked cruise ship so we’d have 5000 contenders for our seats.

Seemed like good advice – especially since that stop was opposite the square where the Labour Party concert had been held the night before and was next to a garden that housed a series of busts dedicated to all sorts of influential Maltese people (most of whom we’d never heard of), which kept us entertained on the 15 minute wait.

The next bus indeed took us to the Waterfront, but the previous driver had miscalculated the shrewd plan as we were instructed to get off and change buses on arrival at the Waterfront stop as our particular bus was relieving of its HOHO duties to go and act as a shuttle.

Of course, there was a very long snaking queue waiting to get on the bus we were needing to, so we caught the attention of the man organising (a strong word to use to describe how he was going about it), the increasingly annoyed and very high maintenance queue of people. He instructed us to stand at the front of the queue, much to the chagrin of a vocal Australian couple, who were intent on complaining about everything.

To further complicate matters, another North bus arrived before our South bus, so there was much hostility as people from the back of the queue who wanted to get on the bus ahead of people waiting for the South bus were mistaken for queue-jumpers.

We also realised the people have an infinite capacity for not listening and for asking stupid questions because no matter how many times the poor organiser man said “This is the Blue bus going North to Mdina”, someone would walk up and ask “Is this the Blue bus?” / “Is this the bus to Mdina?” / “Is this the bus to the fish market?”. Over and over. Thankless job.

Eventually our bus was ready and we got in (just after the Australian couple). We took seats at the back, which turned out to be an error since the audio ports didn’t work. No matter. We were headed for the Sunday Market at Marsaxlokk.

The Aussie couple were having a field day of the trip, bossing people around on the bus and the wife having a cadenza when the bus driver let more people on at the next stop, defying the prescribed number of standing passengers allowed on the bus. “NO. MORE. PEOPLE.” She shouted at him. “I’m on the bus to see the sights and all I can see are people!”. A trifle dramatic.

When we got off the bus, we heard someone asking them if they were getting off. “Hell no,” Husband said, “I’m not leaving this seat until we’re back at the ship!” Poor bus driver.

The market lined the arc of the harbour and was home to all sorts of bric-a-brac. We were expecting more of a fish market with local crafts, so were at the outset a bit disappointed which, combined with it being lunchtime, made for a good reason to adopt a table in the square (in the shadow of a very impressive looking Church) to grab a beer and some snacks.

This was to be our first poor service experience on Malta. Alex and Robbie ordered a calamari starter to share and a burger each for mains, with Christian and I sharing chicken nuggets and chips to be social since we’d had the huge ftira already (and because I’d just seen them delivered to the table next to us and the chips were proper homemade and looked amazing!). First our drinks order was completely wrong and then the burgers never came.

The menu at Restorante dell’Arte was at least more helpful than the staff, revealing in a prose on the back:

Marsaxlokk is a traditional fishing village. The name comes from Marsa meaning port and xlokk, the local name for the south-east scirocco wind that blows from the Sahara. Most of Malta’s fish supplies are caught by fishermen coming from this port. The bay is memorable for the many colourful, traditional fishing boat called Luzzu. The painted eyes on these Luzzus are believed to protected the boats from danger.

The starters had been really big portions and delicious, so we abandoned the unserved food, paid the bill and went to have a closer look at the market and the famous luzzu boats.

And a longer look than intended since somehow the girls got separated from the boys and we missed our bus, which had come and gone 10 minutes earlier than scheduled.

Fortunately there were lots of options to keep us entertained so we took a table at a pavement cafe… And struggled to order anything since a waiter told us it was self-service and the bar sent us outside to the waiters. We accidentally double ordered but still only ended up with one round of drinks!

Back on the bus we traversed the island to the southernmost bit to the Blue Grotto.

Again sitting at the back of the bus, I managed to highjack an audio jack on what might have been one of the less interesting bits of narrative, all about the quarries and mining.

It did answer the (unasked) question about why all the buildings were made of the yellow stone.

Malta is basically a lump of limestone in the Mediterranean and, being a rocky lump, it has stone absolutely everywhere. It boasts what is reputedly the world’s oldest free-standing dry stone temple, Ggantija on Gozo; dry stone walls everywhere; and a plethora of active and disused quarries, dating back to Roman times. Most of the quarries (including more modern ones) are little more than rectangular holes (deep, but small coverage) carved out of the rock, and the number has to be seen to be believed. The stone is drilled – up to 80m deep – with the powder residue from the drills being the base that’s mixed with water to mould building blocks. Modern law requires quarries to fill their holes with landfill and top with top soil.

The Blue Grotto stop was well worth it. For an extra €8 we took the short boat trip into the caves to see the pink coral and blueblueBLUE bits that earned the spot its name. Unfortunately we were seated at the back of the boat so our pictures aren’t the best, but the memories are good.

The sea was clear and warm which made for a refreshing dip – and a thrilling jump off the cliff in Christian’s case – before moving on. 

The last stop on the bus route was the Hagar Qim and Mnadjdra Temples… But we have them a skip because Sundowners were calling.

Literally.

Christian’s soccer buddy from home, Nick, happened to also be in Malta so we’d made arrangements to meet up since it was their last night. They were staying in St Julian’s, an adjacent suburb to where we were, so it was the perfect opportunity to go there to combine a meet-up with a new location.

Jumping off the bus early in Valletta to catch the much-quicker ferry across the bay to Sliema, we dropped off unnecessary items and cut over the hill to St Julian’s.

It turned out to be a longer walk than anticipated, but allowed us to witness firsthand the beginnings of what looked like it was going to be a thumping night in Paceville – the bustling (and quite seedy) entertainment hub wedged between our homebase and our destination.

Fortunately the sun sets very late in Malta so it was still apt to call our drinks “Sundowners” by the time we got to Nick and his friends – at the very lovely pool terrace bar of their very lovely seaside hotel – a little after 7.

They didn’t seem put out by our belated arrival and members of their group (there were 10 of them holidaying together) came and went over the next couple of hours as they went off to refresh and redress for dinner.

Having had a tactical Burger King en route, we were less urgent about dinner and so wound our way back along the waterfront, stopping in for a few pints along the way, intending to eat closer to home.

We stopped in at Surfside Café, which looked festive even though it was now very late for dinner.

What a mistake! The festive crowd was the waitering staff preparing their staff meals and, again, we got a mish-mashed drinks order as well as food we didn’t order (a massive toasted ciabatta thing with goats cheese, sundried tomatoes, olives, capers… Everything we don’t eat) which we were told was on the house, but could not have been a more inappropriate starter for our pizza order… Which eveeeentually came… After we’d ordered the bill, which our waitress (who’d been sitting at the table behind us for almost the entire duration since delivering the random order of drinks) told us to collect from the counter!

The chap from the table across from us came over to commiserate since he’s also received barely-there service and the wrong food.

Luckily the pizzas were passable and we were soon in a taxi headed home, probably a lot later than we should have seeing as Robbie’s taxi was fetching him at 5.45 for his morning flight home.

Travelogue Baltic 3: Day at Sea

DAY AT SEA
18 June 2016

There was no chance we were going to get cabin fever on our day at sea aboard the Serenade of the Seas. While we only had one standing engagement (pun intended) in the acceptance we’d made to the by-invitation-only Honeymooners party, there was LOTS to do on board.

Each evening a printed notice of the next day’s arrangements – called The Cruise Compass – was delivered along with the turndown service. The sea day one was a bumper issue, with all sorts of activities arranged throughout the day covering everything from dance classes to rockwall climbing to bingo to pop quizzes to gambling lessons and an array of arty crafty things like napkin folding art and cutting and sticking things to other things. Something for everyone – and some hard to picture for anyone.

Equal parts exciting and daunting was the mealtime daily planner, which showed that everywhere was offering extended hours so our 3 favourite restaurants’ serving hours were overlapping and we could get a good feeding literally any time day or night! Not that we’d been starving by a long shot. We’d been very well taken care of by the Windjammer buffet dining, Reflections 3-course table-service and Park Café for the in-betweener quesadilla  / roast beef slices / chocolate chip cookies to see us to mealtimes.

The breakfast buffet was so extensive that we’d had to make some tough trade-offs. I’d even bypassed bacon in favour of gammon and declared “sausage of the day” to be turkey, which was surprisingly satisfyingly porky! We also tried American ‘biscuits and gravy’; a heavy scone with delicious creamy slightly peppery white sauce, which worked well with my hashbrowns.

Fed to bursting, we made our way to the Honeymooners party, held in the Castle & Crown pub. We hadn’t been there before and it was a whole new world to venture through the casino to find yet more entertainment awaiting us, including the cinema that flighted a new film 4 times each day.

We were welcomed, ushered to a table, offered champagne and mimosa and served canapés and chocolate strawberries. We were also given a ticket for a lucky draw. There were 11 couples in total on the guestlist, so we were left to ourselves while the last few arrived.

Aysy, the cruise activities director, did a charming welcome and “live, love and laugh” speech before unveiling a magnificent giant cream cake dedicated to all of us! The cake was delicious… but it was impossible to do justice to the wedged we were served on top of what had already been a morning of straight eating!

We didn’t win the raffle (1st prize a bottle of champagne; 2nd a hamper of branded Royal Caribbean merch), but thought that maybe our ship had come in when on our way out through the casino we spotted a pokey machine with 24 credits still on it. Two spins of the wheel and we were (back to broke). A very good thing neither of us are gamblers because we’re clearly not naturally talented!

The next pressing item on the agenda was pool time.  It was a bit chilly at the main pool so we settled in the Solarium, a cosy indoor pool with fountains, glass roof and loungers facing inwards toward the pool and outwards against the floor-to-ceiling windows for an unfettered ocean view.

This did nothing to work up a lunch appetite so we did the responsible thing and visited the gym. Impressively decked out, it was surprisingly busy (especially since the ship is so big that it’s easy to do 5,000 steps a day just moving between meals!). The gym also had a spa and sauna attached; this ship really has *everything*.

The work-out didn’t do much to create appetite, but fortunately we’re driven more by taste than hunger so enjoyed a lovely pasta lunch nonetheless before progressing to bingo in the Safari Club lounge. We needn’t have rushed; we found out that bingo was $50 each when we got there, which was too rich for our blood!

In between all of this excitement, Guest Services had contacted us to say that my suitcase handle was irreparable. Hardly surprising since having the exact right handle in stock was unlikely to say the least. They instead gave me a whole new suitcase, which was very nice of them.

We had decided to skip the Captain’s Dinner in the main dining room for the sake of avoiding having to get all dolled up, and the Windjammer having a Turkish themed evening entrenched our decision as sound. There was just enough time to grab a kebab and a curry and still get to the 7 o’clock movie at the cinema, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot with Tina Fey (who will play me in the movie of my life, but not in as serious a way as she portrayed this Kim Baker war journalist person in the film).

As ridiculous as it may sound, we went out for dessert after the movie. The intention was to go for a waffle since there was a full scale station set up with The Works. It was only when standing in the queue did the magnitude of this decision hit. There simply was no more room in the inn!

Well, there’s never NO room, so we made our own softserve cones and retreated to our lounge where room service delivered us a soothing coffee and green tea nightcap. Not very rock ‘n roll, but tomorrow was another day.

Travelogue Baltic 9: Stockholm

BALTIC 8: STOCKHOLM

25-27 June 2016

The arrival into Stockholm’s Archipelago is breathtaking. As many as 24,000 islands filter from the Baltic to the city. The scenery calms from the windswept, wild beauty of the uncivilised woods, meadows and beaches into the mellow countryside of pretty little villages and summerhouses, then into the harbour, where at the mouth of Lake Malaren lie the 14 islands that make up Stockholm.

The Vikings passed through this Archipelago long ago, but the official story begins in 1252 when the fort was first built. A town grew around it and boomed when Sweden became a major Baltic power. Under Gustav III, the city began to flourish culturally and is now known for opera, cutting edge crystal design and Nobel peace prize ceremonies.

Our plan for Day 1 was to cover the islands closest to where our ship was docked in Frihamnen (Djurgarden, Skeppsholmen and Sodermalm). The hotel we were moving to the next day was across town in Soder so we would cover the further away sights from there in Day 2 (Gamla Stan, Kungsholmen and Ostermalm).

Little plays to plan though and after a brisk walk into town, we discovered that Djurgarden is essentially a big park – and the southern end of a massive “city national park”, which had been reserved for deer hunting until someone came up with the genius idea of preserving the green belt and opening it up to the public.  A very impressive commitment by the state since such a vast amount of prime real estate must be worth a mint!

Djurgarden is also home to the Nordic Museum, which looked great from the outside but didn’t stand a chance in luring us in from the bright sunny day (which we’d learnt was a gift not to be squandered in the Baltic!).

Further down the road is the famous open-air museum, Skansen, containing 150 buildings brought together as a representation of Swedish life, from farmer to aristocrat. While it sounded like it might be a better museum than most, the long queue and the promise of much more ahead prevented us from paying it a visit.

We took time to stop at the ABBA Museum and get our photos taken in one of those life-size posters with the faces cut out – so, yes, we are now immortalised as part of the Swedish supergroup! – on our route past Tivoli (same name as the one in Copenhagen; not sure if there’s a connection) funfair to catch a ferry to the next island.

We made a quick calculation at the ferryport and coughed up for an Access pass card which would cover us for all public transport for the full duration. They only do 24 and 72 hours, which is unfortunate since we needed for 48, but 250 Krone all in was still compelling versus 40 Krone per journey – and the hassle of getting tickets each time.

The hop from Djurgarden to Skeppsholmen is so short that it’s a wonder they didn’t just build a bridge instead. We posited that maybe ships pass through so the bridge would have to be too high. Or maybe there are so many islands that building a bridge feels like a slippery slope that would necessitate more bridge building. Or maybe it’s just a habit thing; there was a framed history on the wall, all in Swedish, which hinted the ferry might’ve been in operation since 1860 (as a small, open air service for a handful of people at a time).

Skeppsholmen had been home to the Swedish naval fleet since 1640. Everything had been built in “the era of the fleet” but have served as museums, restaurants and schools since military operations were phased out from the 1940s. New buildings, like the Moderna Museet, have been added and new uses are being found for dormant building, eg reopening the Torpedo Workshop for use for the performing arts.

A short bridge connects Skeppsholmen to a small island called Kastellholmen, named after the small citadel – Lilla Kastellet – at its highest point. Built in 1848, it is now a conference venue. Both islands form part of the city national park so are very green and make for a pleasant walkaround. Sad but true that some of the most wondrous places were only initially populated for their military purpose.

Our intention had been to go to Sodermalm next, for the remainder of the afternoon, but we got a bit sidetracked when we found our self-guided tour left is on the far side of Skeppsholmen so the most logical path was to walk along the bridge onto the mainland, along the harbour and then walk through Gamla Stan (the Old Town), which was the main item on Day 2’s agenda, holding and surrounded by most of the buildings of historical significance.

Nevermind though, it was lovely day so we embraced the change in plan and admired the scenery.

We’d been a bit ruined on being impressed by scale after grandiose St Petersburg, but otherwise Stockholm would be none slouch in weighing in on a Big Fancy Building competition.

The Royal Palace, at the foot of the Norrbro Bridge, contains 608 rooms making it one of the largest palaces in Europe. City Hall on Kungsholmen Island is built from 8 million bricks and 19 million mosaic tiles, houses the Municipal council and hosts the Nobel Prize Banquet each winter. Riddarholms Church was founded in the 13th Century, has been the Royal mausoleum for 400 years and is known for its distinctive open work metal spire.

Lots and lots of big fancy buildings – I just hope we can still tell them all apart when putting together the photo album!

Gamla Stan was packed and, being a 30 degree day, sweaty. The roads, being authentic in an authentic medieval town, are narrow and roughly cobbled so it’s not ideal for sightseeing, being herded and bumped around. It did smell good though from the number of open-fronted bakeries and ice-cream shops preparing and selling fresh waffles and ice-cream cones on the streets.

I’d hardly say we did it justice, but we did do it… all the way through to the bridge on the other side which connected to Sodermalm, our originally intended destination for the day.

We’d run out of steam a bit to start a whole new island, so picked a waterside pub instead from which to do some sedentary spectating.

We’d chosen well, being across the road from the ferry port, and even more serendipitously, the ferry arrived exactly when we needed it.

This took us back to Tivoli where we intended to grab a bus back to the ship from Djurgarden. Sadly, our luck had run out and we’d missed the last bus (by less than 10 minutes!), so we had to walk back but, as always, the walk back felt much shorter because we knew where we were going, so it wasn’t so bad.

Our return to the ship was bittersweet. We were glad to be back, but sad it was our last night.

Making the most of the time we had left, we did the rounds of a few of our favourite things  (like quesidilla and rare roast beef slices at the Park Café) before returning to our cabin to shower for dinner and pack (we’d been instructed to pack an overnight bag and leave our luggage in the passage by 11pm).

We’d been seated in the same section of the dining room all week, so had gotten to know our server (Melbert) and his assistant (Cesar) quite well. It was sad to be sharing our last meal – but they upped the ante with a whole basket of Christian’s favourite seeded rolls and a bonus plate of starters AND main courses. We may never adjust to real life meals again!

Disembarkation is, as you can imagine with anything with 2000 guests involved, quite a process. We were initially assigned to Group 8, designated to meet in the Safari Club at 06h45, but this would leave us waaaaay to early to check into our hotel so we pleaded and were reassigned to the second last group (30; 08h50).

This meant we didn’t have to get up at silly o’clock (although the sun would have risen several hours earlier) and had enough time for a full breakfast at the Windjammer, which was serving until 8.30!

In typical fashion, it was raining. We’d gotten first glimpse on waking that there was a light drizzle… and it hadn’t abated any by 9 when we left the Serenade of the Sea for the last time.

Our intention had been to use our Access passes to catch a bus to our hotel but the weather made that proposition far less attractive – especially since we now had 3 big suitcases to lumber. We flaked and caught a taxi to Solna.

Solna was to the East on the mainland and I’d chosen our hotel there for a few reasons:
1) diametrically opposite to the harbour so we’d sightsee from homebase to centre point and back each day
2) it was in the direction of and looked like an easy commute to the airport
3) there’s no such thing as bargain accommodation in Stockholm, which made the Radisson an unusually economical choice
4) breakfast included (which we would need after the gluttony on the cruise)
5) free wifi

The hotel was great. Even though we arrived very early (before 10), they happily checked us in and gave us our room… which was ENORMOUS  (and not just as compared with our cabin)… and on the 11th floor with a spectacular view. The hotel also had lots of amenities (sauna, gym, restaurant), attached to a shopping mall, and had a bus station and a train station across the road so very convenient. You never *know* these things from the online ads and descriptions, but this was all we’d hoped for and more.

We resigned ourselves to a truncated walking tour for the afternoon – based on the weather – and thanked our lucky stars that a) we’d gone so off course the previous day and b) we still had our (3) brollies.

The only things I really wanted to see were the Changing of the Guard (at 1pm at the Palace) and some of the sights from the Stieg Larsson Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo et al).

We grabbed a Metro into town and effortlessly changed lines to get out at Gamla Stan. It was a lot more manageable than the day before, possibly because it was Sunday but probably mostly because of weather. With the rain little more than a fine intermittent drizzle, it was actually a pleasure for sightseeing – although won’t have made for such great photos as compared to a lovely blue sky.

We hightailed to get to the Palace for the stroke of 1, but needn’t have rushed. The Changing of the Guard is a lengthy affair – 70 or so marching band, complete with drummers and full brass section, so it takes some time for them to snake through town to get to the Palace. Of course, being elevated at the Palace (there’s a long steep ramp up to the entrance) gives a great vantage point and it was a sight to behold watching the soldiers slow-march from the mainland along Norrbro toward us.

… and then turn left past the Palace.

… and go around the corner.

Good to know for next time that they circle the building and do most of the show on the other side! I surmise we had placed ourselves at the back entrance.

There was quite a crowd around the other side – and people have terrible umbrella etiquette! – so we saw little, but could hear everything.  And we were surrounded by beautiful buildings and statues and a formidable church, so there was plenty to gawk at.

Our Plan B for the afternoon was exploring a pocket of museums in Ostermalm, just off town Central so, since the weather was still a bit bleak, we put the plan in motion.

Old hats at public transport by now, it was a quick ferry to Djurgarden and a tram across the bridge into Ostermalm.

Taking the opportunity while on home turf, it seemed only fitting to try the Museum of Swedish history. Their feature exhibition was on Vikings, with an impressive collection of artefacts, providing bone-chilling detail on the hard core existence people of that time lived.

There were a couple of skeletons that had been recovered and laid with buttons, gold thread and jewellery that had survived their owners, but it was the skeleton of a horse and dog that got me. They’d obviously been sacrificed “to the gods” and the horse had been killed by conk to the head and the dog on its back. Not nice.

The Museum had put some effort into making the exhibit more upbeat though and there were several interactive options in the courtyard, including archery and crafts but, like the napkin folding and towel animals classes on the cruise, we gave them a skip.

The weather was much better by this time so we renewed interest in the Millennium Tour.

The internet was rich with information on how awesome the tour is and how it’s not to be missed, but details were scant on when, where or how. Dated articles directed to the Stockholm City Museum on Sodermalm as the starting point for the tour (“on Saturdays” with no time given, not that it mattered seeing as it was Sunday anyway) or to source a map for a self-guided tour… but the museum is closed for renovations (until 2018!!)

We’d asked at the tourist office in Gamla Stan and they directed us to the tourist office in Central so, since Ostermalm neighbours Central, we hopped on a tram to find the tourist office.

The Girl With The Tourist Office Uniform (disturbingly) had no idea what we were talking about. We told her that The Girl In Gamla Stan had told us about tour maps and, with a little looksee under the counter, TGWTTOU found a Millennium Tour map!

It was in German, Italian and Spanish.

But it was a map.

And, we later found out, it was supposed to cost us 40 Krone (ZAR 80), so SCORE! (As much as a trilingual Trilogy map not in English can be considered a score).

Thrilled at our find, we made our way back to Sodermalm, negotiating our way deftly through the (now very familiar) Gamla Stan.

All this around and abouting was thirsty work so we combined lunch-on-the-go with lunch at McDonald’s so we could use their free wifi to translate the map.

Stieg Larsson’s stories of crusading journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, and his unlikely side-kick, a tattooed wildchild with a penchant for violence called Lisbeth Salander reveal more of Stockholm than its signature dramatic waterside views, designer shows and classic cafés. Larsson chose his real-time home, Sodermalm, to be the homebase of the good guy characters in his fictional works, quite pointedly having the official and evil influences across the bridge from his beloved island.

Our little tour took us past:
1. Bellmansgatan – Mikael’s attic apartment
2. Monteliusvagen – a gravel walkway overlooking Lake Malaren and the old town. Eerily misty from the rain!
3. Lundebron – Lisbeth’s original apartment
4. Mellqvist Kaffebar – hip café where Mikael met both Lisbeth and Erika, his mistress. Now just called Kaffebar.
5. Synagogue on 13 St Paul – nondescript and quite unexciting
6. Gotgatan – a main feature road where Millennium offices are and where Lisbeth shops at a 711
7. Fiskargatan 9 – Lisbeth’s new 21-room apartment  (which she only uses 3 rooms of)
8. Mosebacke – a square with a statue of entwined sisters in the shadow of the looming water Tower
9. Kvarnen – an old world tavern  (the stained glass windows say 1908) where Mikael enjoyed a drink and Lisbeth used to meet her rock-chick friends. Now 178 Krone for 2 beers!

We had planned on a traditional Swedish meal at Kvarnen for dinner – elk meatballs, smoked reindeer sort of thing – but the prices were outlandish (R400 for meatballs and mash), so we Googled a Plan B.

Sodermalm is known for being very trendy, in a sort of grungy urban way. We’d seen our first litter, more graffiti and a few hobos, which was dramatically different to the refinement of the Central district or the natural beauty of the leafier islands. But it is also (allegedly) rich with traditional food options so it was a question of cross-checking location, price and opinions.

According to several reviews, Meatballs for the People on Nytorgatan (600m away) was the place to go for atmosphere, flavour and price. Sounded like a win.

It was relatively easy to find… but closed for the summer! What?! And such a pity too because the venue looked so fun and the menu spot-on!

The sign in the window did recommend one of their other 3 sister restaurants, the closest of which was just around the corner so we thought we’d give it a try.

The restaurant we found ourselves guided to was a trendy lounge bar with an even more trendy artisanal menu. Not a thing we wanted to try and CRAZY prices!

Out of steam and ideas, we decided to go back to Solna and let fate decide.

Smugly using our Access cards to the fullest, we jumped on the Metro and crossed town to get home, grateful to have the mall annex on our hotel to fall back on. And ended up at Burger King.

All was not lost on the meatball front though and we were delighted to find that our hotel included meatballs in their breakfast buffet! Nice one, Radisson!

Travelogue Baltic 8: Riga

BALTIC: RIGA

24 June 2016

Riga was a specific inclusion on our cruise request when we were shopping for quotes, after having seen it in the tail-end of a travel show and it seemed so quaint and pretty. There was also a cruise option a night shorter but that excluded the Latvian capital, which seemed a shame since it’s a relatively far-flung destination unless you’re already in the neighbourhood, as we would be. We were just very lucky that this cruise fell on our first choice of dates as well – a universal sign that this was the perfect Honeymoon choice.

And now here we were. In Riga.

Having learnt from our too-early start in Tallinn, we had a leisurely start to the day. Slept in a bit, hit the gym, casual breakfast at the Windjammer… and a good thing too because when we arrived we found out that the day before was their big Independence Day (celebrating the fall of the Communist regime) so the whole city was only opening at 12.

This gave us a chance to have a bit of an unfettered walk-around… everywhere, as it turned out. Riga is very small!

The shuttle from the ship had deposited us just short of the Opera House. A great big beautiful building with manicured gardens in front and a river with bridges equal in form and function alongside. Of course, it seemed a bit like Mini Town after Peterhof!

Across the gardens we found what turned out to be the Freedom Monument. A bit short on information, we tried to eavesdrop on a tour group, but we’d missed the gist of the story so moved on.

Our attentions – once we were past the McDonald’s that was doing a roaring trade, of hungover party-goers no doubt – were caught by a cylindrical castle covered in ivy. There was a weapons museum attached to it, which we would like to have seen, but it was closed on the grounds of it being The Day After ‘n all.

No mind, we could see an impressive rooftop of sorts from there so headed in that direction. It was the Church in the town square. This was clearly a major attractions because everything was at a glance geared to tourists; souvenir shops, waitrons in traditional dress, boards offering traditional dishes. On closer inspection, this was Dome Church and actually Dome Square, so we headed off to find the Town Hall Square.

We took the long way around so that we could incorporate walking along the river and in 2 short blocks time we were at the Daugava River, where we found a statue of a big fella in a glass case. Fortunately his story had an English translation:

Legend has it that a long time ago a tall strong man cold Lielaps Kristaps (Big Christopher) carried people across the River Daugava. While sleeping one night, Kristaps heard a small child crying on the other side of the river. He immediately rose to fetch the child and began to carry him. Half way across the child became so heavy that Kristaps barely managed to get to the other side. Exhausted he lay the child to sleep in his shack and fell asleep himself. When Kristaps awoke the next morning he found a large chest of gold where the child had been. When Kristaps died the money was used to found the city of Riga.

So there you have it. As good as gospel.

The other story (according to the tourist brochure) is that, being at the mouth of the Daugava River, Riga became an important port along the Vikings trade route, catching the attention of the Hanseatic League, a confederation of merchant guilds who dominated the Baltic maritime trade along the coast of Northern Europe.

A little less romantic a story, but a trifle more believable.

Having walked the full length of the outskirts – from bridge to bridge – we then returned to the Old Town, there were signs of life, as everything opened up again, as is the way of the day after the night before.

We consulted the map to see what was left to do. The cityscape includes a 13th century cathedral, a castle, a few dreary Soviet highrises and dozens of Art Nouveau buildings. It’s a haven of museums with the Latvian War Museum, Art Museum Riga Bourse, Latvian Museum of Architecture, Museum of History of Riga and Navigation, Barricades Museum, Museum of Ancient Baltic Jewellery, Museum of Photography… Museum of film / sport / porcelain… you name it, they had a museum for it!

We went to none of those!

We did spot something called The Cat House, which piqued our interest because we’d seen the logo on lots of stuff in tourist shops.

Opposite the Great Guild stands 2 turrets, a black cat with an arched back sitting on each.  Legend has it that the Guild denied membership to a well-off tenant who was so infuriated him that he had the 2 cat sculptures made and put on the turrets with their tails turned towards the offices of the Guild. One of the Guild elders in a court proceeding turned the cats to a more appropriate angle.

But the statement was made, the annals written and the t-shirt gotten (literally in this case).

The Old Town is a UNESCO Heritage site and looks like a fairytale with its cobbled streets, but feels Parisian with its buzzing social life. Now with the town in full tilt and us having seen what needed seeing, we took our last half hour to sit and catch a breath, watching the Latvian day go by.