On the road

On Saturday I decided to finally load my bike on a train and go have a little ride in the countryside-as I need to escape London every 15 days or so to prevent myself from going insane.

The whole ride was a roundtrip: I took the train from King’s Cross to Ashford and then cycled to Dungeness, Camber Sands, Rye and back to Ashford.

Naturally I packed all the wrong things. The weather forecast warned of rainy spells and clouded skies so I packed my waterproof gear. The temperature was also meant to be quite high so I packed my swimming suit and my short wetsuit. I also packed both my locks because London has a way of making a cyclist paranoid.

The result of this preparation is I got back with a sunburn and my shoulders aching from the weight of my backpack. Bear in mind that I am not a serious cyclist and this has been my longest ride so far. After getting lost for more than half an hour trying to find the correct way out of Ashford (surely there must be a way to avoid the A2042 without having to initially go over fences and across train tracks), I was eventually on the right path to Dungeness- and relying solely on my phone for navigation (Note to self: buy that power bank).

When you get to the cycling path, the way to Dungeness is actually pretty straightforward, mostly following National Cycling route 2. I cycled through Newchurch to Lydd and then followed the aptly named Dungeness Road to Dungeness.

It soon became apparent that I had no idea what to expect when I arrived there. I cycled through what I now understand was the natural reserve bit, an expanse with lakes and water patches all around; I spotted birds, hikers and kite surfers in the distance as I was passing through.  Then I got to a fork on the road, one side leading to the EDF nuclear power station (which up to that point I thought was non-operational) and the other leading to what is referred to as the ‘Estate’. I cycled towards the nuclear station with the intention of passing through it. Judging from the signs pointing to the ‘visitor’s center’ it is actually possible to visit-if that’s your kind of thing. Being conscious of the fact that I was on a tight schedule in order to catch the train back at 7pm I decided to skip the visit.

I then stopped a couple of helpful police officers on patrol to ask which bit is the reserve. They told me what I was looking for was the Estate and let me through a gate to that area. The Estate bit is the part you will see in photographs when you look for ‘Dungeness’. You have a long shingle beach (apparently Dungeness is one of the largest shingle expanses in Europe), a few dark-coloured cottages by the seaside or scattered around inland, lighthouses and an old train station, which belongs to the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway. I am guessing it is served by a rather old train, judging from the sound it was making in the distance.

There were two lighthouses in between the railway station and the sea, where cowboy anglers fish for nuclear fish. The one closer to the water was operational and beeping loudly at regular intervals. The nuclear power station looms over this desert landscape and the white beach, making for a dreamlike sight.

There is one pub in Dungeness, advertising the fact in the sign. I really wish I could have stopped for a beer but unfortunately I couldn’t spare much time in the area and began heading back for Lydd. On the way back out of the reserve I cycled by Prospect Cottage-except not to my knowledge at the time. This little black cottage belonged to film director Derek Jarman.

After reaching Lydd once more I headed for Camber Sands, a popular beach in the area, famous for its sand dunes. The tide was low when I arrived and the sea didn’t look particularly good so I decided to skip the swim after all and just walk around the beach for a bit.

After Camber I headed to Rye, as one of my colleagues had suggested. The road from Camber to Rye is a scenic one, passing by little ponds and fields of flowers in bloom. I always find it amusing how the cattle and sheep turn around and stare whenever I cycle by, although it is a bit rude.

Rye is a small medieval town by the sea, once an important port. It is very picturesque and made for an ideal stop for an iced coffee.

The ride back to Ashford was a bit of a struggle, as the road was slightly inclined for most of the way. My backpack was slowly cutting off the circulation to my arms and my legs were getting heavier by the minute. I did plan to get to Ashford an hour before my train journey though, just to be certain I would make it in spite of any likely complications. As I reached Ashford my phone battery died, leaving me without a map. Fortunately the locals knew where the train station was and I finally reached my destination.

Despite the sunburn and the exhaustion it was a great day out and Dungeness is definitely worth a visit. The return ticket to Ashford is a little more than 20 pounds, so it’s definitely an affordable daytrip to the wild west of England.

Advertisements

Old Tales from Istanbul

I had a look at my old photographs from Turkey today and I realised I never wrote anything about that trip. This is unacceptable for two reasons: one, it’s been ages since it happened and I remember only a fraction of it and two, I don’t remember it precisely because I didn’t write about it.

Since my blog is basically my diary at this point, I feel compelled to put this story in writing so that I can refresh my memory and so whoever stumbles upon it can learn from our mistakes and triumphs. Hopefully it will be of some use to future travellers in Turkey with a tight schedule and a tight budget.

Memory is a very unreliable source of information so make sure to take the finer details of this story with a pinch of salt-or rather a tablespoon, to be safe.

Looking through my archives, there are several e-mail exchanges between my friend, Giulia,  and myself on the subject of Turkey. This piece of dialogue is a short example of our communication:

Screenshot_10

 

There is a ton of other useless information shared, such as updates on the latest episodes of Vikings, our opinions on which topics should be avoided in the Southern United States, a mining accident and a picture of Giulia’s broken watch.

However, within that pile of nonsense, like an archaeologist who has just wiped the dirt off the first few tiles of a majestic mosaic, I uncovered the holy scriptures- the prototype itineraries of the trip.

I had expected them to be in our shared Google drive folder and was surprised not to find them when I looked in there. I checked with Giulia who insisted there was no itinerary and we basically winged it for the entire trip. The funny thing is-according to the e-mails- she was one who put the first draft down on digital paper and sent it to me. This is what the proto-itinerary looks like when deciphered from Engtalian:

18/04 : Arriving in Istanbul

19 /04: Istanbul

20/ 04:Bursa/Eskisehir

21/04:Eskisehir/Ankara

22/04:Ankara /Kayseri

23/04: Goreme

24/04: Goreme/Konya/Izmir

25/04: Izmir/ Ephes/Pamukkale

26/04: Izmir

27/04:Izmir/London

Istanbul

  • Eskisehir
  • Ankara
  • Goreme
  • Konya
  • Pamukkale
  • Ephesus

I can already reveal -spoilers!- that we didn’t make it to Pamukkale. I am still a bit sore about it but looking at the time frame it would have been too tight. I am positive there was a companion document to this schedule that summarised all the touristic highlights and places of interest in each area but it is impossible to find and Giulia denies its existence. I will have to rely on my memory from now on.


Istanbul

Giulia was flying to Istanbul from London whereas I was flying from Athens. Somehow we either just assumed that the (massive) city only had one airport or we just didn’t bother checking which airport each of us was flying to. Not the same one, as it turned out. With my phone’s battery running out I fortunately managed to find Giulia somewhere near Taksim. I remember she was sitting on a cafe waiting for me, probably for ages. It was a happy reunion, since it had been a year since we had last seen each other. We headed to the hostel, which was called Green House Hostel and was located not far from Taksim and Istiklal Caddesi. I found it quite cosy and welcoming and don’t recall having any complaints.

Now, let’s examine exhibit B- the photos I have taken in Istanbul. The first thing that becomes apparent is that they were taken with a compact Canon which comes from a previous century. They are in their majority blurry and awful. However, upon inspection they offer valuable information. It seems we were in Istanbul for two days, the 18th and the 19th, which means we decided to change our schedule as soon as we touched ground. The locations I have photos of are:

  • The Grand Bazaar
  • Hagia Sofia
  • The Blue Mosque
  • The Basilica cistern
  • Topkapi palace
  • A park near Topkapi, which I assume was Gülhane Park

I remember walking down Istiklal from Taksim as well and coming across an old tram wagon. I have no memory of taking a taxi, a bus or any other means of transportation while in Istanbul, which means the distances between the sights mentioned above are all manageable. Here is what I remember of each location:

  • The Grand Bazaar

I am not a Bazaar kind of person, which is to say I have no tips on bargain items or haggling techniques. You will love the bazaar if you like crowded enclosed spaces with shops. I remember feeling very lost and having trouble admiring the architecture with a sea of people in motion all around me. Nevertheless, the sheer size of it is to be admired and it is an interesting experience, especially if you haven’t been in any similar type of market anywhere else.

  • Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia is a building with a long history; It was originally constructed as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral and served as the cathedral of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople for centuries before the Ottoman Turks conquered the city. The church was converted into a mosque after the city changed hands so it is a cultural hybrid, a unique blend of christian and islamic architecture. This place is definitely worth a visit, mostly because so much history has been imprinted on it. I remember we didn’t have much time in Hagia Sophia but it’s safe to assume that every mosaic, every pillar, every carving on stone has a different story behind it and there is much to discover.

  • The Blue Mosque

Ah, the Blue mosque (or Sultan Ahmed Mosque)-  my second favourite thing in Istanbul. In my mind it is associated with light, openness and serenity. I remember we visited the Blue mosque straight after Hagia Sophia and it struck me immediately how different the atmosphere was; while Hagia Sophia was imposing, solid and somber, the Blue Mosque was airy and open, allowing the sunlight in at every chance. Having to take my shoes off at the entrance contributed to a warm feeling of ease that was entirely unexpected. The mosque is built to impress and it doesn’t fail to; The interior is beautifully decorated and complimented by the metallic light fixtures, suspended not too high over ground. Its name comes from the hand-painted blue ceramic tiles that cover the walls. It is a masterpiece of islamic architecture and to this day the most impressive mosque I have seen.

  • The Basilica cistern

This is the only place that beats the Blue Mosque for me. A cistern is basically a waterproof  water reservoir. In this case it is a massive ancient underground water reservoir, supported by rows of pillars disappearing into the darkness. It also has fish. It looks as amazing as you can imagine. Sadly, my photos don’t do it justice in the least (you are going to need a better camera than a compact from the early 2000s and a tripod). I would suggest googling it instead.

  • Topkapi palace

Topkapi was built during the reign of sultan Mehmet II and served as the administrative center and residence of the Ottoman sultans for approximately four centuries. It is a large complex, consisting of four courtyards, containing pavilions and tulip-filled gardens.  It’s a  place that offers a plethora of historical information and a lovely afternoon walk all at once. The park near the palace is an unexpected jewel, full of little surprises such as  water ponds, sculptures and imaginative floral arrangements at every step.

At night time I remember going out around the Taksim end of Istiklal and sitting down on a bar with outdoor seating and a very familiar feel to it-it was almost like being back in Athens.The atmosphere was relaxed and the place seemed to be popular with the locals.There was a network of smaller streets that would come alive at night, brimming with bars, cafes and restaurants.

I have to note that we were advised by the receptionist in the hostel not to go out after 10. She insisted it was dangerous, especially for two girls on their own. She went on to talk about her own experiences living in Istanbul and cases where she had encountered men whose behaviour was rude at best and predatory at worst. She was a foreign exchange student but I can’t recall which country she was from. In the end we had no issues walking around at night but we did notice the groups of friends walking down Istiklal consisted either solely of men or of both genders-there were no girly groups walking about. It might have been a complete coincidence but, with that girl’s warning still ringing in our heads, we both immediately took notice.

When we left Istanbul we took the morning ferry to Bursa, and then from there, following a short wait, we took a coach to Eskisehir. What happened next is a bit unclear- the next photographs I have are from Goreme, but I distinctly remember spending one night in Ankara and looking for a meat market in Eskisehir-or was that Konya? The plot thickens. I will carry on my investigation on another post. For now, feast your eyes on the godawful pictures that have been haunting my hard drive for years now:

 

 

 

Weekend trip to Lincoln-Pt.1

I have resolved to try and visit at least some of the UK before leaving it (for the second time). When a promotional e-mail on train ticket sales landed on my inbox I could therefore only assume it was fate, guiding me to the cheapest available destination .

I picked Lincoln without giving it much thought, as it has both a cathedral and a castle (what more do you need?) and it is less than two hours away from London. I was also travelling first class on the way back, so I was looking forward to pretending I actually have money.

It turns out that one of my colleagues used to be a tutor in Lincoln university and he reminded me that another colleague actually lived in Lincoln so I arranged to meet her.

The day before I passed by King’s Cross and asked to reserve a place for my bike. Then I realised the bike tickets would only get me so far and I spent the night stressing out trying to decide if I was taking my bike or not. I still don’t really understand what the deal with the bike tickets was, the final station on my ticket was Lincoln but the final station on the bike reservation ticket was a place an hour away.

By the morning I had decided to just a rent a bike there if possible- two days were not enough to cater for transportation mishaps. As soon as I got out of the house I realised the weather was not going to do me any favours. As soon as the train started moving the first snowflakes started to fall.

By the time I was in Lincoln it was snowing heavily, to the point where it was getting hard to see ahead -not because the visibility was reduced but because the snow was getting into my eyes. It is pretty easy to find your way to the historical center from the train station, provided you can actually see. There are street signs (recently raised, I was told) pointing to any places of cultural interest.

My plan was to visit as much as I could on the first day so on the second one I could mostly just relax before the journey home. I headed up to the cathedral from the main commercial street which is called High Street. High Street leads up to the aptly called Steep Hill, a picturesque cobbled road lined with tea rooms and sweet shops. The path leads to a square where a small market of local products stood on the day despite the snow fall.

The Cathedral

I headed to the cathedral first, which is undoubtedly the most imposing building around, towering above the entire city.  It was visible as I was walking up the hill but I didn’t fully grasp the scale of it until I was standing right before it. When it was built it was in fact  the tallest building in the world. As I walked under it, looking up to the rows of sculpted heads by the front door I had the feeling I was entering some Egyptian tomb, rather than an English cathedral.

To visit the cathedral you need to buy a ticket, which is valid for 6 months. There is a joint ticket on offer which grants access to the cathedral and the castle. It’s around 17 quid and can be used twice within a certain time period. The interior of the cathedral is equally impressive: the  ceiling is supported by imposing pillars some of which are darker in colour. Decorating the outer walls are enormous stained-glass windows, filtering the daylight from outside; Their vibrant colours are in stark contrast to the rest of the cathedral, which is built primarily out of limestone.

St.Hugh’s choir is a separate area located after the nave towards the back of the cathedral. From the stalls to the organ fittings, it is carved in its entirety out of dark wood. Before entering the corridors leading to the choir one has the chance to admire the intricately decorated choir screen, an impressive work of medieval masonry.

Unfortunately the library was closed when I visited but I had a quick look at the cloisters and almost missed the Chapter house until I heard music coming from behind a heavy wooden door. The Chapter house is a circular building with one big pillar in the middle, that looks as if it spouted from the ground and then grew to reach the vaulted ceiling. There was a piano behind the pillar and a few seats facing the piano. A man was playing a soft melody on the piano but he had no audience save for a couple of tourists that were having a look around the building.

On the walls around me I noticed paintings were mounted and as I inspected them I found out it was an exhibition by Stephen G. Bird; Each painting was a visual narration of Biblical stories in a modern setting. I found the concept and the style of the paintings very engaging and spent quite some time walking around the Chapter house admiring them and reading about the stories that inspired them.

While I was walking around the cathedral my colleague texted me to keep an eye out for the Lincoln imp, a sculpted figure on one of the columns where the Angel Choir is. Being not-so-eagle-eyed, I had to enquire at the information office and the lady there pointed me to the exact location. The imp is the symbol of the city of Lincoln; According to a local legend it was a mischievous demon who was turned into stone by an angel after wreaking havoc around the Cathedral.

The Castle 

Next up was Lincoln castle, which I expected to be the usual sturdy but plain medieval castle commonly found in the UK. I had no idea it had been used as a prison during the Victorian era or that it housed a copy of the Magna Carta.

As I got my ticket I was informed a tour was starting shortly and I decided to join. I didn’t realise the entirety of tour was taking place outside ( in the blizzard) even though the tour guide actually warned us. We walked around the bailey and the tour guide talked about the history of the fortifications, the castle’s particular architectural elements and the Victorian prison system. We took cover whenever we could and even slipped inside one of the offices and stayed there for a few minutes to warm up.

I wish I remembered our guide’s name because he is an actual hero, soldiering on despite the awful weather and maintaining his energy and good humour all the way through. When we started the tour we were about 15 people but by the end of it we had lost more than half.

Here are some interesting facts (that I can still remember) about Lincoln Castle:

The Separate system

The newer part of the prison was designed according to the separate system, which is something straight out of Gothic Victorian tales-except real. The separate system was a concept of prison discipline that emerged on the 18th century as a byproduct of an effort to reform the prison system. The main idea behind it was that interaction between inmates encouraged bad behaviour and was counter-productive to their reformation. Instead prisoners were encouraged to focus their efforts on spiritual development through prayer and penance.

The prisoners were kept in solitary confinement for months. They were fitted with leather masks whenever they were taken out of their cells and even worse padded shoes so that their footsteps wouldn’t be heard. The prison Chapel in Lincoln is a very clear expression of this concept: the stalls are fitted with separations which ensure the absence of communication between inmates during worship.

Of course, as our tour guide pointed out, the separate system was promptly abandoned  simply because people inevitably went bonkers after a while. The guards weren’t too fond of it either.

The Long drop

This one is for all the execution enthusiasts out there (go see a therapist). Back in the day when murder was a valid punishment, the whole execution thing was a very messy business apparently. Hanging caused death by strangulation and it would take more than a few minutes before the victim was finally dead. It caused a painful death and made for a distressing display to the crowds. William Marwood, a man from Lincoln was the first person to introduce the Long Drop. Even though he was not in the murdering-people business he developed and demonstrated a more humane way of conducting executions; the Long Drop method suggested that the height of the drop was tailored to the height and weight of each prisoner. The extended fall would result in the fracture of the spinal column at the neck, killing the victim in seconds (and even decapitating them in some cases).

The Mottes and Bailey 

The Motte and Bailey castle is a widely adopted design in the UK, first introduced by the Normans. The motte is a natural or artificial mound, and the bailey is an enclosed courtyard. On top of the motte a wooden or stone structure is built, the keep. Lincoln castle is unusual in that it has two mottes instead of one. That’s right, I can now tell my future children that I have visited a two-motte castle.

The Magna Carta

The Magna Carta, ‘the Great Charter’ needs no introduction. It is one of the most famous documents in the world; signed during a period of political turmoil, it was essentially a peace treaty between the king and the barons who had rebelled against him. The document ensures that the king is subject to the law along with all his subjects and secures the right to a fair trial for the people. It is a highly influential document and three of the clauses in the Magna Carta are still part of the English law.

The Forest Charter was a supplementary document to the Magna Carta which dealt with the regulation of penalties imposed by the king on offences within the territories that were considered part of the Royal Forest. If any of this sounds familiar it’s probably because king John, who signed the Magna Carta, is the baddie from Robin Hood. Lincoln Castle is the only place where you can see an original Magna Carta alongside a version of the Forest Charter. The documents are kept in the vault where a film relating the history of the documents is projected. The film wasn’t available while I was there. You can also see a chain mail shirt down in the vault, but I honestly can’t remember its relevance.

There is one thing I didn’t visit in Lincoln Castle: the fortifications. It just didn’t seem appealing to climb somewhere up high and walk around in that weather. Instead I headed off to the square and bought some fudge from the first shop I found- which I highly recommend. I met my colleague for coffee and cake in a vegan tea room which is quite high up on steep hill. It was very cosy inside and they had different varieties of coffee in the menu, which made me very happy. After the coffee I headed off to find my accommodation for the night, which I really need to describe in detail on another post.

 

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.

 

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:

20161004_204449

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.