The not-so-bad British summer

Seeing as I haven’t posted anything since February I thought I’d start with something easy, just so my brain would get accustomed to putting lines of text together.

There has been a lot going on in the UK this summer, more specifically a barrage of bad things. On the bright side, I don’t see any locusts around and there is definitely no flood on the way (only thunderstorms for the moment).

As if to highlight the failings of our society, nature turned up the thermostat to wash the city in bright sunlight.

While the city was slowly coming to a boil I found myself longing for things I was familiar with. I normally miss the sea every day of the year but now, with temperatures that reminded me of home, the thought of being far from the coast was asphyxiating.

Luckily, my housemate fancied a trip to the seaside as well so for once I didn’t take off on my own. After much contemplation we decided to head to Hastings, a place neither had visited before

The train journey from central London to Hastings is a little over an hour, with direct trains departing from Cannon Street. The tickets were expensive as per usual; for some reason though the single ticket at 28 pounds costs the same as the day return ticket. The guy at the ticket booth told us we should have brought another person with us, as you get a group discount for three people.

I told him about our other housemate letting us down and he joked that she was probably hangover. I don’t think my housemate is capable of being hungover-she was the one that happily offered to finish my bottle of raki after I mentioned it was too strong for me. We grabbed our tickets and boarded the train with time to spare.

Arriving in Hastings feels like arriving in any other English seaside town. The architecture is mostly consistent throughout the country so you can expect to see Victorian houses with balconies, a seaside promenade by a main road, amusement arcades (but why?) and a very long pier.

Hastings as a name might ring a bell because of the battle of Hastings, of which I know nothing except that it took place at some point. Hastings is in fact one of Britain’s oldest fishing ports. It has been a maritime center for over a thousand years. Nowadays, Europe’s biggest fleet of beach-launched fishing boats is based on the Stade, a shingle beach by Hastings Old Town. The Hastings Fishermen’s Protection Society preserves the fishing community’s medieval right to carry on using that beach for free.

The sea is at the very core of the society in Hastings. On the way to the Stade you will come across a fish market housed within a complex of tall, narrow wooden sheds, all painted black. These are the Net Shops, where the fishermen used to store their nets. Some of these buildings are listed as national heritage assets. Near the net shops you will find the Hastings Fishermen museum and the Blue Reef aquarium, none of which we had time to visit.

Our destination was the beach, specifically the Stade where the fishing boats were lying on the pebbly equivalent of sand dunes. The is divided on two sections by a car park and a concrete structure that goes into the sea. There are a lot of man-made constructions in English beaches whose purpose I still haven’t understood. Like what’s up with the wooden barriers that go into the sea, do they stop the sand from moving about due to currents or something? I have no clue.

Anyway, we stayed on the first section of the beach for a while and I braved a plunge and a swim. The water was-as expected- freezing and murky but I was satisfied just swimming around as I pleased and not in lanes. It turned out the freezing water was the least of my problems because some idiot with a dinghy boat decided to play a game with his family where he would throw a rope off the back side of the boat, they would hold on to it and he would drag them around, moving about in circles.

Mind you, the back side of a dingy is still equipped with a motor which comes with a propeller, which is the sort of thing you don’t want near your kid. The guy almost run me over twice as I was swimming; the second time I had to physically stop the boat and tell him to watch out. His kid apologised in his place, because I suppose when one is being an ass they might as well go all the way.

By the way, when driving a motor boat you are not allowed to use your engine at full speed past the line of buoys in the water-since there are people that might be swimming in shallow waters. I know people don’t need a licence for dinghies that size but that’s just common sense. Propeller=sharp. People=soft. Keep that in mind all you aspiring dingy pirates.

While I was busy dodging dinghies, my housemate was exploring the area and when I came out of the water she had already decided to go to the far end of the beach, which required quite a bit of walking on pebbles and rocks. It must have taken us around 15 minutes to traverse the rocky terrain and reach a part of the beach that was more isolated. A tall white cliff was separating it from the mainland but it was definitely not shielding it from the sun. Even if you do find some rock formations that cast shadow I would advice against sitting below a vertical cliff. England is not a seismogenic country, but it does get battered by the elements quite a lot. I can’t imagine landslides are that uncommon.

Swimming on that part of the beach was fantastic. Despite the waters being not-so transparent and the fact that I really missed the small background details-like the smell of thyme and the sound of cicadas-it actually felt like being on a holiday. There was even the occasional old man nudist,adding to that feeling of freedom, from life in the city, from being confined within buildings, from reality and from clothes.

Sadly my housemate noted pretty soon that the sea was rising fast and began worrying we would get cut off from the rest of the beach. Despite that little voice in my head telling me ‘you can totally get cut off and just swim back’ I decided that the prudent thing to do would be to follow my housemate. After all, none of us was familiar with tides. On the way back I made a game of running and jumping from rock to rock. ‘Don’t jump on the green one, it looks slippery’ my housemate warned me. ‘Naaaah’ I said as I slipped and fell flat on the pebbles. Sadly I don’t bruise easily, which means there is no evidence of my past mistakes-which means I tend to forget and repeat them.

After leaving the beach we made a stop at the Old Town, which was literally just across the street but still we had to google directions and ask a local man how to reach it. The Old Town is mainly residential; there is one short street with a number of restaurants, bars and coffee shops and then another street going up that is known for antique shops. My housemate had a sudden craving for sea food but alas, most of the restaurants were very busy-and looked quite touristic.

In the end I came across an old lady sitting on a chair, sunbathing in front of an antique shop and asked her for a good place to eat fish. She recommended a restaurant which was just around the corner but didn’t look so appealing at first glance. She mentioned they had grilled fish however, which sealed the deal for us. The place was called the Master and I do recommend it for the fish and the service. Plus, I was really excited to find fish that was not deep fried. It’s not that I dislike the ‘fish’ part of fish and chips, I just think it should be recognized as a crime against cooking at some point (don’t deport me yet).

If you walk around the Old Town you will find some pubs with nice cosy gardens that look very welcoming on a sunny day. I noticed that a lot of them were advertising gigs and a lot of the bands were playing sea shanties. Although this was obviously something for the tourists it did compliment the picture of Hastings as a sea town rather nicely. As we walked along the street where the restaurants were we also came across an outdoor comedy show. Two young guys were handing out leaflets for it a bit further down the road. A lady greeted one of them and told him she really enjoyed his last show and that she had checked out his videos on youtube. I gather these shows take place every now and then and they are open to the public and free of charge.

We didn’t stay long enough to have a beer and watch the sunset unfortunately. It was a Sunday, we had a train to catch (which we only just barely caught) and we both were working the next day. Even for one day, it did feel like a proper holiday. We both joked about how surreal it felt to be tourists on the British seaside. It all felt awfully familiar and at the same time inevitably foreign.

The sea has always been a familiar thing in my mind. Since my early childhood I have a clear picture of it, how it works and how I relate to it. For this reason, there are things here that strike me as particularly odd, from the way the tide works to hearing people say that freezing cold winter days are brilliant for a walk by the seaside. It’s interesting for me to try and put together an English person’s image of the sea.

Maybe if I grew up here I would have fond memories of my parents taking me to a ridiculously long pier on a winter day to eat battered cod. Maybe winter days would make me think of the seaside and the smell of sea weed would be more welcoming than the smell of thyme. Maybe I would also dislike shingle beaches and I would surf on a wet suit in Cornwall on holidays, or travel to the Jurassic coast with my my hypothetical kids to pick up fossils. Who knows.

Gozo and Comino

Gozo and comino are located opposite the northernmost part of Malta and are well worth a visit. That ‘Blue Lagoon’ beach that comes up on every google search about Malta? it’s in Comino.

Getting to Gozo and Comino is ridiculously easy. There are frequent boat services from Cirkewwa to both islands. You can find tickets for both trips for 10 euros (return). At first I thought I could do both trips in one day, as I didn’t want to take the bus all the way to Cirkewwa a second time (it takes about an hour to reach Cirkewwa from Valletta and I had already done that trip more times than I intended)

The day before going to Gozo I had a look at the land tours available on the island and decided to go with the red sightseeing bus. Tickets for the red bus are sold on the ferry; the English gentleman in the booth gave me a discount on the sly-which I assume he gives to everyone and I think I paid 15 euros.

The red bus has two routes, and I am pretty sure I was on the blue one. I stayed on the open top floor for as long as I could, which was up to the Azure window, which I highly recommend for swimming. The terrain is quite interesting and you can easily swim through the rocky arc (I don’t know why but I always feel compelled to pass through these rocky windows in all countries)

Then I hopped on the next bus to Ggantija, a megalithic temple complex, a UNESCO world Heritage site and one of the oldest religious structures in the world. The museum design was simple but modern, and seemed quite recently renovated (or actually built). The megalithic structures, while impressive in size essentially form four rooms and leave a lot to the imagination. It’s worth spending more time reading up on the island’s history in the  museum than actually walking around the megalithic complex.

Upon leaving Ggantija I made a serious mistake: there are no bus stops for the red buses. They drop people off at designated points, like a crossroad or the curve of a road. In this case, I managed to miss the pick up point and ended up waiting for about half an hour under the burning Maltese sun with no shade in sight. As I have already mentioned I am not particularly resilient to extreme temperatures so I decided to ditch the red bus and get the first public bus that passes to experience the relief of an air-conditioned environment.

I have no clear recollection of what I did next. I remember ending up in Rabat and having to wait for another bus for ages. The next bus took me to Ramla, a beach with red sand that came highly recommended. It was very quiet on that day, and to me it was heaven after the wait at Ggantija.

 

Gozo really did look like a miniature version of Malta to me. I enjoyed the smaller crowds, narrower streets and more beautiful beaches though. Gozo felt more like an actual island to me.

 

The next day I woke up at 7 am and got to the bus stop to get the bus to Cirkewwa as early as possible. I had been warned that the Blue Lagoon got really crowded by midday. I had to wait almost an hour for the bus as it got stuck in traffic (which by the way is very likely to happen in Malta). Then when it finally arrived it turned out the air-conditioning was out of order so the driver had to go and fetch another bus. Regardless, I was still able to reach the Blue Lagoon at an early time.

Now as a Greek person I have seen a lot of places with swimming pool-like bright blue waters; I still found the Blue Lagoon was worth a visit. It was really hard finding a spot to sit already so I had to climb up the rocks and find a high spot to set up camp (put down my towel)

On this note, I have to say I was able to leave my stuff on the beach while swimming all around Malta and nothing ever happened. I don’t really carry much money around or a camera or anything of any actual value (my phone cost 50 pounds two years ago and the screen is cracked) so there was not much to steal anyway, but I did have a literally empty rucksack stolen from me in London so you never know. I kind of felt bad for the thief.

On the way back, the boat took us to the caves on the other side of the Blue Lagoon, which was a nice detour before heading back to Cirkewwa.

A word of warning for those who like their beaches organised (as in with facilities): what you can see in the pictures is all you will get in the Blue Lagoon. A handful of umbrellas and a few canteens serving soft drinks and hot dogs. I think I saw a toilet somewhere high up as well.

I wish I had more time to see Gozo and Comino; I feel like I got to see quite a bit of Malta (minus the archaeological sites) but not a lot of these two islands. If I was to do the same trip again I would probably try to spend a night or two in Gozo and explore it more thoroughly.

 

Women’s March-London

This was probably the biggest march I have attended so far. The atmosphere kind of reminded me of the negotiation-period gatherings in Athens that were basically massive parties on squares. Of course a demonstration about women’s rights could only be politically colourless- though it would be safe to assume that everyone there found common ground in their mutual lack of appreciation for the 45th president of the United States.

There was almost zero police presence, and the only cops I saw were not in riot gear. There were a lot of parents with kids on their shoulders and babies strapped on their backs and everyone looked as relaxed as I felt. I think the Notting Hill Carnival might have been a more dangerous experience than this 100.00 people march in a city like London.

The banners and slogans ranged from lighthearted jokes and plays on Trump’s statements, such as ‘This pussy grabs back’ or ‘this pussy has claws’, ‘grab the patriarchy by the balls’ and so on to quotes from comandante Ramona. I can safely say this is the first time I have seen the word ‘pussy’ appearing on so many banners. The environmental hazard of Trump’s upcoming presidential term was also an obvious matter of concern on the placards.

The crowd was so dense that at certain points groups of people would diverge from the main body of the demonstration and take side streets to get closer to the rally point, which was Trafalgar square. That again for a protester in Athens would be unthinkable, considering every other side street is blocked by riot police. I followed different groups around and was mostly concerned with finding objects to climb for the entire duration of the protest. considering how chaotic it all seemed, I really wanted a chance to be able to appreciate the volume of the protesting crowd. I don’t think I ever came close to, considering how flat London is.

At the rally point, there were a  few artists doing their thing, from singing Woodie Guthrie to painting stuff on the ground with chalks. The most inspired moment I witnessed though was this lady next to me that suddenly decided to start doing Xena’s warcry to… show her appreciation towards the speakers, I guess?  If anyone ever happens to be giving the beat with a loudspeaker at a future march, could you please try that out and see if it catches on?

Malta walkthrough pt.2

It’s been so long since I posted part 1 that I have since forgotten pretty much every detail of my holidays in Malta. Before I forget the rest, here are the memories I can recover from my malfunctioning brain:

On my first day in Malta I visited Paradise Bay, probably because it was mentioned in some tourist guide or someone recommended it. Don’t go there, alright? The beach looks decent; it is situated in a small bay, enveloped by cliffs. If it had been left at that it would have been nice to swim in but unfortunately it is what we call an ‘organised beach’ in Greece. It has a canteen, sunbeds, shower facilities and worst of all, for reasons that are beyond me, a certain part of the water has been designated as a ‘lido’; that is to say there is a rope marking the perimeter of the ‘swimming area’. Why? I honestly cannot imagine. My best guess is that this is a way to make the lifeguard’s job easier and to ensure people don’t wander away in deep water and drown. Honestly I have no idea why this is a thing. Anyway, I would suggest this beach for people with limited mobility but it is not even accessible and I recall I did a fair bit of walking to reach the water. Just don’t go unless you really like showers and ropes swimming in the water.

20160828_132659

After leaving Paradise Bay I inexplicably headed back east. I think that might have been a result of the poor bus connections. I don’t really remember but I might have grabbed the first bus that passed towards Melieha Bay. There I found a small forest of umbrellas planted on a very uninteresting stretch of sand in front of a main road. There was also a ‘spot the jellyfish sign’, which sounds like the least fun game I can think of. I watched that film about aliens deep underwater when I was a child-‘The Sphere‘ if I recall-where at some point someone’s nightmare manifests as jellyfish overwhelming the surrounding waters and digging their way into people’s eye sockets and stuff. At least that’s how I remember it. Needless to say, I hate jellyfish since. Although I guess it’s not really a phobia because I did swim in places that carried this warning in Malta- I guess it’s just a deep aversion towards living jelly. If like me, you are not a jellyfish enthusiast you have been warned: listed on the sign were the Portuguese Man-o-War and the box jellyfish, the special forces of the Jellies.

Leaving Melieha Bay, I somehow ended up at a Reggae bar called Ta Fra Ben, which overlooks-you guessed it- Ta Fra Ben Bay. This is a small rocky bay, which was not very crowded when I arrived there at around 5pm (keep in mind it was also September when I visited Malta). It might not look like much but at that moment, it was perfect. There was the sound of Pink Floyd coming from the bar, the sea was clear, chilled and calm, everyone was relaxed and it finally started to feel like summer. I had an iced coffee at the bar and everything was perfect.

I honestly have no memory of the second day and I think I spent a big part of it trying to change hostels and when I realised I would not get refunded, trying to appeal to the tourist authorities of Malta. I stayed at a ‘dormitory’ or hostel, as we say in my village, called Valletta Sea Esta. It has three floors and the first one accommodates four people. I decided to pay a bit more for the extra privacy of the 4-bed room and ended up sharing with the entire building as-surprise! There are no doors! what fun! also, the central staircase passes from inside the room, meaning that every time someone from the floors above need to reach their room, they have to pass in front of your bed. But no worries: they won’t turn on the light because a sensor that picks up movement will do it for them, every time they are near the stairs. The employee told me that the rooms were described as ‘interconnecting’ on the website, to which I answered that ‘interconnecting’ does not necessarily mean that there are no doors or that the main stairs pass from within the room but my protests got me nowhere. This hostel is also quite pricey for a hostel and has only one bathroom per sex (the toilet and shower are in the same room) for three floors, so just try to avoid it.

It was on the second or third day that I found my favourite beach on the island of Malta. It is on the north west and it is called Ghajn Tuffieha. A watch tower and a restaurant are situated on the cliffs overlooking the beach. I was quite happy with the restaurant, they have big portions and the salads are very rich. I climbed up to the tower to appreciate the view and I have a vague memory of an olive grove nearby, with signs bearing quotes from Dalai Lama and…Churchill?

Right next to Ghajn Tuffieha you will find Golden Bay, which is also quite pretty-sandier but a bit less impressive and more ‘organised’- as well as Gnejna Bay which I didn’t have time to visit and I regret it because it looks quite striking in pictures

Now here’s another place I don’t recommend visiting: Marsaxlokk. I don’t know why people keep recommending this village. It is apparently a very traditional fishing village and it is being promoted as a ‘picturesque’ location, mainly untouched by modernisation. That is true to a certain degree, if your eyesight is so selective that it can ignore the massive power plant at the far end of the port, by the sea. After having changed buses from god knows where to reach Marsaxlokk, and walking all morning under the burning sun I badly needed to jump into the sea. I have a clear memory of being very desperate for cold water.

I must be a failure of a Mediterranean person; a Scottish girl who shared the dorm with me was perfectly fine walking around Valletta at noon, even though she looked red as a lobster. I, on the contrary could not go a day without swimming and could not bear walking around for a couple of hours at noon. Near Marsaxlokk you will find St.Peter’s pool, a famous location that all the locals are aware of and no bus will reach. It must have been half an hour away from the port by foot. I did not have the  motivation to do the trek- being Greek I have seen quite a few rocky pools in my life (Sarakiniko, anyone?) and I was already put off by the power plant. To be completely fair, that power station is not in use anymore and the surrounding waters are clean, it’s just the mere sight of it that put me off.

On the way back from Marsaxlokk I headed towards Marsaskala and stopped at St.Thomas Bay for a swim, which was peaceful, gathering  just a small crowd of locals. It’s near a small port and if I remember well one side the bay has been transformed into an organised beach, with cafes and restaurants around it. I walked to the other side of the bay, where there was only a small stretch of sand and a portable canteen. There are small boats parked in the water but it’s perfectly clean.

Here is a place I do recommend visiting: Mdina, the old capital. It is a fortified city far from the coast, in the interior of the island. Mdina, also called ‘the Silent City’ was founded by the Phoenicians, then used by Romans, Arabs, Byzantines, pretty much everyone, which is why the architecture is an interesting mix of rhythms. In Mdina I met up with a fellow hostel dweller, a Brazilian sailor whose ship was off refueling somewhere. Here’s  the thing about Brazilian navy ships (and possibly any navy ships): they will pick the best locations to refuel. As in, passing from Spain? oh let’s refuel as close as possible to the Canary islands.  We wanted to visit the catacombs of Rabat as well but they were closed by the time we left Mdina. Fun fact: there is a place that looks like a…restaurant? in Mdina called ‘The old Greek brothel’. Other fan fact: this town is a Game of Thrones location, along with other places in Malta.

We then decided to head back to Valletta and take the ferry to the three cities, which are situated opposite Valletta within the same gulf. The three cities, Vittoriosa, Cospicua and Senglea are also known by different names. I remember Vittoriosa being referred to as Birgu most of the time. The Grand Harbour of Malta is truly grand and the ferry ride was definitely worth it, just to take in the sheer size of it. I mean look at it!

Before my temporary companion left to carry on with his mission we had dinner at a restaurant called Malata by the main square. Most of the restaurants in Valletta have someone playing the piano in at night, which is nice but unnecessarily romantic. Considering I was travelling by myself this was the only occasion where I could eat in a restaurant without feeling like I had been stood up by someone.

Valletta is in general quite beautiful but if you are expecting any sort of nightlife, it’s not the place to be. It tends to fall quiet after 11, which surprised some fellow Greek tourists whose discussion I overheard. Valletta is pretty quiet in the morning as well. There is a commercial pedestrian street, but it doesn’t have that many shops. There are quite a few cafes and restaurants- mostly restaurants. Expect a lot of stairs, and beautiful cobbled streets. Also, for some reason (mostly Catholicism I suppose) a lot of statues of saints. Do visit the Upper Barrakka gardens, especially at night. They are beautiful and you get a lovely view of the port. There are also cannons which are fired every now and then in a programmed display. The Brazilian let me know that in the past when a ship would come into port, they would fire and empty their cannons, as a show of goodwill. Nowadays cannon salutes happen for different reasons; in Malta I am guessing the reasons are purely touristic.

 

The Stavros Niarchos cultural center

This building was the talk of the town for a while after its completion. It has been designed by the architect Renzo Piano, the same guy who designed the Shard. The land for its construction was provided to the Stavros Niarchos foundation by the state and the building’s management will apparently be undertaken by the state following a designated period. Stavros Niarchos was a rich guy who had ships by the way.

The building includes facilities for the National Opera and National Library. Its most prominent features are the lifted metallic roof, supported on round pillars, the ‘field’, which starts on street level and goes up on an angle, serving as the roof to part of the building, the ‘lake’, which I was told is filled with sea water and the viewing platform/corridor, which was called something confusing.

The field/garden is fully made up of Mediterranean plants instead of grass and colorful flowers, which means it will survive the climate. At first sight it doesn’t look man-made. It does smell fantastic, with the scent of thyme, lavender, rosemary etc filling the air every few steps. My friend joked that she will be going there to pick up herbs for her kitchen and I said I sure hope not everyone has the same idea, cause the whole thing will be gone by the end of the month.

The field apparently includes a labyrinth and a vegetable garden-according to the map- but we were unable to find them. We asked one of the guards and he suggested that we read the map. When we insisted he said it was his first day on that post and admitted that he had no idea where anything was. My friend wished him a good start on his job- a typical sort of wish.

There is also a ‘musical garden’, which is basically an area with installations that make sounds, like tiles that give out different notes when pressed. If you are based in London, there is something similar (albeit a bit sadder) in the Joseph Grimaldi park between Angel and King’s Cross. You are literally encouraged to dance on the guy’s grave.

There was one feature of the musical park which left me perplexed and that was a massive stone rotating on it’s axis for some reason. It didn’t make any sound but you could stop it from rotating, which was not a lot of fun.

Considering the lack of decent architecture in Athens, this is a minor improvement.