The best island Pt.1

Not everybody has a favourite island, unless of course they are from Greece, or an island nation or just an island-lover I guess. Anyone who has a favourite island will be more than eager to promote it within their social circle as an absolutely essential holiday destination. They will be willing to show you pictures, name all the beaches, all the beach bars and tell a thousand stories in their effort to convince you that their island is worth visiting.

It works the same with things like tv shows. When a friend asks you if have seen their favourite tv show you are better off just lying to say you have or you might spend the rest of your day, week, month, year listening to all the reasons why you should absolutely watch that show. This is why social media is such a gift to advertisers, people are passionate about sharing anything they are passionate about.

Therefore, since I am also people I feel compelled to convince you, Fede, and the other two random people from Romania and the US who occasionally stumble upon my blog that the best island in the whole world is Lefkada.

Lefkada or Lefkas is situated is one of the ‘Seven Islands’ of the Ionian sea (the others being Zante, Corfu, Ithaca, Paxos, Kythira and Cephalonia). Lefkada is the only island of the seven that can be reached by car; it is connected to the mainland with a floating bridge. Ferry fees are quite expensive in Greece and avoiding them can offer some relief to travelers on a budget.

Upon crossing the bridge you will find yourself in the town of Lefkada, the island’s capital, surrounded by an area of still water called ‘Mouteli’- which apparently means ‘mud’ in the local dialect. The town of Lefkada is not the typical greek island town you will find in postcards. Don’t be expecting whitewashed houses with blue window frames. The architecture of the Ionian islands is colorful, with Italian and British elements. The houses are also built to withstand earthquakes- a lot of them are reinforced  with metal sheets on the upper floors.

If it’s good food and a vibrant nightlife you are after, there are a lot of options in the town of Lefkada. The boost in tourism in the past decade was accompanied by an entrepreneurial frenzy with new bars, nightclubs and restaurants sprouting like mushrooms. Fortunately, the character of the town has remained mostly intact.

Nydri, half an hour away by car is by far the most touristically adapted place in the island. I am pretty sure I saw an actual pub over there- a-not-so-characteristic establishment on a Greek island. On the way to Nydri there are several seaside places with hotels and holiday houses and they are usually not as pricey as inside the city.

Nydri and the surrounding areas offer some lovely scenery to wake up to: There are five small islands opposite Nydri and Peryali- one of them is owned by Nanos Valaoritis, a famous poet and writer. There is a single mansion on the tiny island that looks somewhat abandoned these days. The massive island in the distance is called Meganisi, literally ‘big island’ and the long island in front of it is Scorpios, which I don’t think needs a translation. It used to be owned by the Onassi family and was sold to  Rybolovlev who I believe is a very rich Russian man, capable of buying islands.

All the beaches of the island bar two were closed to the public when it was owned by the Onassis. Now none of the beaches are accessible. Technically, people can still approach the island by boat, drop an anchor and swim wherever they want but no one is allowed to swim out to the shore. Back in the day we tried stepping onto the beach a couple of times with my family and were scolded by the marine police. I am not sure how that works- if you buy the island do you get a few freebies as well in the form of sea cops? I am not sure if this is still the case but in retrospective it was odd, I don’t think they just happened to be patrolling the area every time we were there.

If you head a bit more inland while you are at Nydri you can reach the Nydri waterfalls, where you will have the opportunity to swim in refreshingly cold water-unless they are dried up during the time of your visit. Expect the waterfalls to be pretty dry throughout the summer months.

Lefkada has a mountainous terrain which comes with a few picturesque mountain villages. The most well-known ones are Karya and Eglouvi-where a famous variety of lentils is produced. If you have had enough of eating fresh fish you can head to the villages for locally produced meat.

Of course the main attractions are on sea level and they are -unsurprisingly- the beaches. The most well-known beaches are on the west side of the island and they are Porto Katsiki, Kathisma and Egremni (the road to the last one is apparently blocked following an earthquake that caused a landslide but it can be reached from the sea). Other nice beaches are Pefkoulia, Yalos, Megali Petra, Ammoglossa and Yira in the north. If you are into Windsurfing go for the west end of Yira. If you are into water sports Nydri is the place for you. As for the beaches on the west side, make sure the wind is not against you when you plan to travel there. Also watch out for the waves; even though the Ionian sea is generally pretty safe, the waves crush onto the shore with great force and might suck you into their loop. Another thing to watch out for is landslides and falling rocks in general; don’t be tempted by the shade near the cliffs, it’s safer to sit closer to the water.

We spent three days in Lefkada and then took the ferry to Meganisi, which I will be writing about next. I haven’t finished making my case yet, because to me, Meganisi and Lefkada should be visited together so bear with me ok?

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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.

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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.

 

Malta walk through part 1

There is a standard reaction when a Greek person tells another Greek person that they won’t be spending their summer holidays in a Greek island: they make a face, indicating their disapproval and say ‘but…summer holidays outside of Greece? what are you going to do?’- or something along these lines. The point being, a summer holiday in a foreign country is shunned upon because clearly nothing in the world can match the beauty of our many, many islands.

This summer I was determined to prove all my short sighted fellow country men wrong. First, I stated my position, provoking cries of outrage from family and looks of disappointment from friends. Second, I had to pick a place with sea. Following a process of elimination based on air ticket prices (I am looking at you Croatia), I finally decided that Malta was the perfect place for me: small,old, with interesting architecture and-most importantly-an island with sea that you can actually swim in (I am looking at you UK).

Then I did all the boring stuff, which was asking for time off and actually planning my holiday. I was offered some very helpful tips and a guide from friends living in London and another friend from Greece who had recently traveled to Malta suggested that I stayed in Valletta, which is the capital- and which proved to be a bad idea. Here’s one tip I have for you at this point: if like me you are poor and use a broken (windows) phone as a camera and  fly Ryanair, you are probably not checking in any suitcases.

Now, a backpack is perfectly fine for 8 days but bear in mind that plebeians like ourselves need to carry two types of towel: shower towels (because you are staying in a hostel) and beach towel. I was seriously dreading the moment when I would have to try and squeeze everything into my backpack, until a colleague kindly informed me that it’s 2016 and such a thing as microfiber towels exists. Seriously you guys, these things are thin as a t-shirt, fast-drying, soft, easy to pack magical pieces of cloth that will save you a lot of space and trouble. They can be found at the top floor of JD sports, and in several other places,I suspect.

The flight from London to Malta is about three hours. There are no night buses as far as I remember but you can find a bus that takes you to Valletta up to 12pm. It is possible to buy a ticket from the driver. However, if you are staying for 7 days or more and would like to travel around, I would recommend getting a Tallinja card, which is basically a prepaid Oyster card. The 7 day Tallinja costs 21 pounds and you can use as many buses as you like for the week. On a sort-of-related note, here are some pictures of clouds because flights can be really boring if you are travelling solo:

 

In fact they can be so boring, that you start noticing stuff you wouldn’t otherwise notice like how badly drawn the safety instructions are sometimes. In order to combat my boredom I made an effort to replicate these by using my left hand only. Here is the result:

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Anyway, I arrived to Valletta quite late. The hostel (which is the only hostel in Valletta and I absolutely do not recommend it) was  easy to miss, but I was able to find it with the help of trusty google maps. Valletta is one of these places that make me sort of uncomfortable because they feel very familiar and very unfamiliar at the same time, so I end up feeling like I am in some sort of parallel dimension. It’s the same sort of feeling I had in Izmir, Ankara,Valencia and parts of Istanbul- it’s the architecture, the climate, the way of life that vaguely reminds me of home.

Of course with Valletta, it was even weirder because of these:

Malta has been conquered by pretty much everyone, and most recently by -you guessed it- the British. As a result, pretty much everyone speaks English and you can drink a shandy and eat stuff like fish and chips. I also came across quite a few British people who were working in Malta,which is apparently a popular destination with immigrants from the UK.

Valletta is also basically  Hyrule Castle Town: the main attraction is an old church, there is a main gate, fortifications all around and the Palace square has its own theme  which plays every hour. Apparently it’s a tune by a famous Maltese composer, Charles Camilleri. I kind of enjoyed it but after you’ve heard it 10 times already it starts to feel like Groundhog day.

The defining feature of Valletta is the narrow cobbled streets with the long sets of stairs. The most iconic areas are the main entrance, which is where the buses make their final stop, the upper Barrakka gardens, the Palace square, St John’s co-Cathedral and any place overlooking the Grand Harbour,which is indeed grand. Valletta is also a UNESCO heritage site, so you know it’s going to be good.

One of the things that I found odd about Valletta was the fact that it is a pretty quiet place; it gathers quite a crowd in the morning when the shops are open but the noise dies down quite early at night. There were a few bars and pubs where I stayed but nothing compared to what one would expect to find in a capital city. There are however, quite a few restaurants where you can eat mostly pizza and rabbit. Some of them even have live piano performances at night time, which is really lovely. The food is quite pricey in Valletta though. A salad  (my measuring unit for food pricing) costs around 10-11 euros in most places.

My days in Malta were planned with two things in mind: I had to see as much as possible in about a week and I absolutely had to swim in the sea as much as possible. I woke up at around 8 each morning and walked to the main bus station of Valletta, where things can get quite confusing, but fortunately the staff are always there to point you to the right direction. Keep in mind that there will be delays for all sorts of reasons, from the air conditioning not working to insane amounts of traffic. Also keep in mind that the buses in Malta have the temperature of your fridge at home and boarding while still drying from the sea is a bad, bad idea. This all was beautifully expressed in a graffiti that read ‘I hate the cold busses‘, spotted around Ghajn Tuffieha.