Frankfurt pit stop

This year I finally realized why people are pestering me to book my Christmas flight as early as August.  I had a look at ticket prices in October, expecting to find the prices slightly raised but still quite reasonable. Boy was I wrong. The cheapest direct flights were selling for a modest 350 pounds with return, which is about 150 pounds less than what I could pay to go to Cuba and back.

In the end I decided to book an outgoing flight with a one-hour stopover in Zurich and an outgoing flight with a 5-hour stopover in Frankfurt.

Obviously, all I had the chance to see from Zurich was the airport, which offers ridiculously expensive duty-free chocolates, which are yummy but not 11-euro-yummy.

Frankfurt, on the other hand, is easily accessible via train from the airport. It is after all in Frankfurt as a girl pointed out to me when I asked how to get to the city. From the airport, you can take a train which is part of the S-bahn system, which is insanely complex and seems to go all the way to Heidelberg (a much, much better city). The train will take you to the King’s Cross of Frankfurt, Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof within 12 minutes. Keep in mind that you will need around 5 euros for a single journey; there is also a day ticket for 9 from what I saw. The train carriages are equipped with screens which show what the next stop is, the time you will be arriving at the next stop and how much time is left to the next stop, in case you are mathematically challenged. Like an excel sheet loaded with macros, it was pleasing to my eyes.

At this point I should mention I have been to Frankfurt before when I was a kid; we drove through it with my parents. ‘Do you remember the white watery sausages?’ my sister asked when I got home. I did and they were a big let down. I was looking forward to the pretzels, however- pretzels are great and wonderfully shaped.

When I arrived at the station I went to the information point and explained to a very stylish elderly gentleman that I had 3 hours and was looking for recommendations (because I hadn’t bothered to plan this beforehand). He asked me what I wanted to see, to which I answered ‘uhh..I dunno…buildings?’ Having realised he was dealing with someone not very bright, he circled a location on a map and sent me on my way.

First, I encountered some fancy skyscrapers, which seemed to menacingly guard the entrance to something. After passing the skyscrapers I came across a massive euro sign, which I now realise is there for a reason and not just to scare me: Frankfurt is home to the European Central Bank (as well as a massive financial center). I was in the mouth of the wolf; the big euro sign was casting its shadow on me and frozen rain was trickling down.

 

I took a picture of the euro sign from behind and went on to find a square with a memorial on it, an old-looking yellowish church, and finally what seemed like the main commercial street-the Oxford street of Frankfurt. Twice I was mistaken for someone who knows where they are going and asked for directions-once in German, language I am familiar with exclusively through Rammstein songs.

That was when the rain picked up and I had to run into a clothes store for shelter. When the rain died down a bit I went walking again and somehow managed to stumble upon the Altstadt- the old city- which is basically a square surrounded by traditional architecture. It sure looks pretty and if you want more of that sort of thing you can take the train to Heidelberg.

From there I could spot an impressive cathedral, which I now know is Saint Bartholomew’s Cathedral. I went closer to have a look but didn’t enter. Then I realised I was near the river bank so I walked to that direction and came across an old bridge, which I had definitely seen mentioned on Tripadvisor.

There is an inscription in greek on the bridge, which is apparently a quote of Homer and means ‘Sailing the black sea with people who speak a foreign tongue’, which I am guessing also stands for ‘there are a lot of immigrants in this place, and they are not very happy to be away from home’. The poster on a pillar opposite the road advertising a greek play called ‘Exile’ supported my hunch. People had locked padlocks on it- for the same reason they throw coins in fountains, I am guessing.

It was time for me to go eat my pretzel and head to the airport, back to my own black sea and my own foreign tongue speaking people that I weirdly kind of missed.

Edit- What’s with the knife and gun shops? seriously?

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.