Saturday, March 30, 2013

Sicily's Northern Coast

Before we enter Cefalu, let's take a moment to marvel at how turquoise the waters in northern Sicily are.

Almost the entire coast, from Messina to Palermo, was this colour when we drove through Sicily this month. White sandy beaches as far as the eye could see, surrounded by rolling green hills, dramatic mountains, and red clay roofs. 

Southern Sicily definitely looks more like Malta. It's all limestone, aloe plants, prickly pear cacti and dusty roads. But plugging through northern Sicily in our little blue car we definitely felt like we weren't in Kansas anymore (and our two Toto's agreed). 

- Jess

Friday, March 29, 2013

Our Little Sicilian Road Trip

We've become addicted to road trips.

Let's face it, air travel isn't glamorous anymore (confession: I'm too young to remember a time when it supposedly was). So it can be so much more relaxing to omit baggage restrictions and flight schedules from your travels, and hit the road.

This time last week (almost to the minute!) we kicked off our little Sicilian road trip, driving up the east coast of Sicily, catching a glimpse of  the mainland of Italy at Messina (you can take a quick ferry over to connect to the boot). 

Next week I'll be posting about our little Sicilian road trip, which I planned with lots of help from a great Sicilian friend.

We had been saying for years that we should go to Sicily, and I wish we hadn't waited so long. I admit, I thought Sicily might be overrated. But it charmed the socks off me, and I'm looking for any excuse to get back for more busiate pasta, Modica chocolate, honeyed seasame snaps, and the unexpected humour and kindness of the Sicilian people. 

If only our ferry crossing from Malta to Sicily was as smooth as the rest of our trip (I lost count of how many people got sick!) But, serendipitously, the rough seas cancelled our ferry back home and extended our trip by a day.

Honestly, if real life hadn't called us back to Malta, I might never have left. 

- Jess

length of stay: 5 days/4 nights
hotels: La Pineta (Erice), Ucciardhome (Palermo), and Royal Maniace (Ortigia, Siracusa)
distance: 1,000 km/622 mi or 13.5 hours

Friday, March 22, 2013

Sicilia Or Bust!

by matthew tammaro, from his beautiful hudson's bay co. series

As you're reading this we are sucking back espresso (for me) and orange juice (for him) on the high-speed ferry from Malta to Sicily! After saying for five years (!) now that we have to spend more than a 12-hour day trip in Sicily, we're finally headed north for a long weekend with the pups.

(Sometimes I forget how south we live, until I write 'we're headed north' with reference to Sicily.)

good (Sicilian) friend graciously provided us with some amazing tips for our road trip (I've pinned them all here). We're hitting up Palermo, Cefalu, Sciacca, Trapani, Erice, Selinunte, Siracusa and its lovely Ortigia, San Vito Lo Capo, and (of course) IKEA in Catania.

I'll be Instagramming (and Tweeting, and Vine-ing @jessinmalta) while we're away. Do follow along!

buon weekend!

- Jess

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Inland Sea, Gozo

Over the weekend we packed up our little car full of friends and headed to Gozo for a day trip. It may have been my favourite trip to Gozo yet, full of great food, lots of laughs, and perfect weather (March in Gozo is always my favourite).

The Inland Sea was, uncharacteristically for this time of year, crawling with sightseers. But amidst the crowds there were quiet little moments begging to be photographed - little luzzus slowly disintegrating into the hills, spring flowers blooming amidst boats hoisted up for painting, ancient sand dollars embedded in the rocks, and kids catching jelly fish with homemade nets. 

The Inland Sea is a lagoon linked to the Mediterranean Sea through a narrow, natural arch in a cliff face. It is literally the place where the sea comes into the land. You can see a beautiful 360 degree view of it (including the ever-present line up of tourists eager to ride a boat through the arch) here.

  • It's free! There is no admission fee to the Inland Sea or Azure Window (they're next to each other) at Dwerja.
  • BY CAR: In the past couple of years there has been a lot of roadworks/construction ongoing in Gozo. Be aware of diversion signs leading to Dwerja. There are also sometimes 'parkers' at Dwerja - park at the first parking lot to avoid tipping for their 'services.' 
  • BY BUS: Almost all tour buses in Gozo make a stop here. The Arriva public bus 311 also runs from Victoria/Rabat (Gozo's capital city) to Dwerja (the name of the location of the Inland Sea and Azure Window).
  • FACILITIES: There are cafes, restaurants, W/C facilities, and ice cream trucks on site. 

- Jess

Monday, March 18, 2013

Traveller vs. Tourist

For years I've been thinking about the power of language to influence the opinions we form and the actions we take in our lives. Including travel. What do you become when you pack your bags, board a plane, and head off to explore a new city, country, or continent? Are you a traveller, or a tourist? And why does the distinction (and the hierarchy it implies) matter?

I loathe this commercial for Anthony Bourdain's newest show, Parts Unknown, on CNN. It's a 30-second spot that, for me, represents an emerging conflict I feel bubbling up in the tourism industry (and heck, even in the travel blogging world).

I think this commercial clearly illustrates the perceived differences between the terms traveller and tourist. According to this line of thought the traveller seeks authentic cultural experiences; the tourist is content with following a tour guide through parts unknown. The traveller interacts with locals; the tourist interacts with resort staff. The traveller explores 3,000 year old ruins; the tourist sits on a beach. The traveller sleeps in local apartments, yurts, or treehouses; the tourist bunks up in hotels and resorts. The traveller takes home polaroids and journal entries and hand woven baskets as souvenirs, while the tourist is content with postcards and t-shirts and fridge magnets.

What is implied is that the traveller is to be respected, and the tourist to be mocked. The traveller is intelligent, the tourist is not. The traveller roams the world with good intentions, while the tourist lacks authenticity. And here is where I disagree.

The more I travel the world, and the longer I live abroad, the more I have come to believe that you can never truly 'be a local'. You can never truly see a city, country, or continent as a local does. Even expats who live abroad for the majority of their lives always maintain something of an 'otherness.'

Further, how authentic can your travel experiences ever really, truly be (especially when the exchange of money is involved)? When you dig deep down, what actually makes a traveller any different from a tourist? And, more importantly, how are they the same?

Here is where things get interesting. I have always thought of myself as a traveller, and I think I relate that term to the frequency of travel. A traveller travels often; a tourist travels once or twice a year. But, when I visit popular travel destinations (Paris, London, etc.), no matter how frequently I travel, I feel like a tourist. And when I set foot on the road less travelled, I feel like a traveller. So I am just as guilty as Bourdain (and CNN, and plenty of travel writers and marketers) as falling into this authenticity and labelling trap.

But, as I have alluded to in past posts, I am tired of the travel hierarchy. I am tired of the increasingly higher bars we set about what real travel is, what makes travel valuable, and who is a traveller. I commend anyone who explores the world around them - whether that's a trip to Disneyland, a trip to a new cafe down the street, or a year spent backpacking and volunteering around the world. I see the value in seeking authentic travel experiences, but I don't think that we should turn up our noses at anyone who chooses to sit on a beach, or (heaven forbid) follow a tour guide around a foreign country.

While I understand CNN's Parts Unknown commercial is targeted to a specific demographic, I urge CNN, Bourdain, and you, fellow travellers, to begin rethinking how you define who gets to be a 'traveller' and what makes travel valuable.

I'm interested: how do you define yourself? Are you a traveller, or a tourist? And, are you comfortable with that distinction?

- Jess

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Our Road Trip: The Costs

There's a big elephant in the room of travel blogging and its pockets are stuffed with cash.

If there is one thing that it is easy to avoid writing about, it's the cost of travelling. If you're like me and you read travel blogs, or even just look at your friends' vacation photos on Facebook, you've probably wondered 'how much does that cost?! how do they afford that?'

After your response to the question we posed to you last year - would you like to know what our road trip cost? - we decided to pull together some numbers for you.

Let me start by saying we know how incredibly lucky we are to be able to travel like this. Heck, these days you're even lucky if you have a job, can pay you bills, and feed your family. The fact that we get to explore a little bit of the world is an incredible opportunity; one that we do not take for granted.

We hope you find our numbers useful in planning your next dream vacation. At the very least, they might give you something rough to work with - a number to plaster on your piggy bank - as the first step in achieving your travel goals.

Since we live in Malta, we use Euros in our daily budgeting. You can find exchange rates for USD and CAD (as of August 2012, when we booked and paid for our trip) below.

In comparison, 13-17 day Gap Adventure tours in Western Europe cost €2,300-€2,900 per person.

Where we saved:
  • We are very grateful to Go with Oh and for sponsoring us in Paris, where we stayed for three nights in a fabulous artist's studio, free of charge. Thank you once again to Go with Oh, and to all of you who helped us win runners-up in their contest last Spring.
  • We booked hotels with free Wi-Fi and parking, wherever possible.
  • We researched free public parking and affordable private parking options before leaving.
  • We rented the smallest class of car available, which had good fuel mileage, saving us money on gas/petrol.
  • We parked outside of the city of London at a friend's flat, avoiding big parking fees (€35-€50/night at most hotels in London) and the €10 inner city congestion fee.
  • We researched museums with free admission beforehand (e.g. many of London's museums are free) and took advantage of our EU resident status to get discounted and free museum admission.
  • We purchased wine at supermarkets and saved by not ordering that extra glass at a restaurant or cafe - instead we would take our bottle and some plastic cups to a park, or back to our hotel if it had a terrace or dining area.
  • It was cheaper for us to take our rental car on the ferry from Calais, France to Dover, United Kingdom, rather than the train. So we did.
  • Following the implementation of new EU legislation, our roaming charges are now considerably less when travelling throughout Europe. However, if you do not have a European cell/mobile phone, but your cell/mobile phone is unlocked (tip: you can purchase factory unlocked iPhones directly from Apple!) you can purchase pay-as-you-go talk time and data from mobile carriers across Europe. This saves big time on roaming fees. We did this before the fair-fee legislation came into place, and now have SIM cards for France, Germany, Italy, the UK, Greece and Spain!
  • We set ourselves a strict €50/day food budget, and followed it. To save money we purchased staples - bread, crackers, olives, sun dried tomatoes, cheese, fruit, cherry tomatoes, wine, juice, and water - at grocery stores. In the end we actually came in under budget at €40/day. That's €20/person per day - no small feat!
  • When time permitted, we used our Tom Tom for Western Europe app for iPhone to route us through no-toll zones (although this often added hours of driving on to our trip and wasn't always practical). Although Tom Tom is an expensive app, it doesn't require data or a WiFi connection.
Where we splurged:
  • Driving was both a splurge and a savings. Our total car related costs - including rental fee, parking, tolls, and gas for 17 days - came to €1,125. In comparison, a 5 country 15 day Eurorail pass costs €500/youth or €770/adult + booking fees + public transportation costs to get to and from your hotel.
  • While we tried to keep our hotel budget under €100 a night, it is certainly possible to stay in hostels throughout Europe and spend €15-€50 per person per night. When you're travelling as a pair it's often cheaper to stay in hotels than pay the per person hostel fee.
  • We splurged on tickets to The Phantom of the Opera: £23 each (but booked the cheapeast seats in the house.)
  • We splurged on tickets to the Damien Hirst restrospective - £13 each - at the Tate Modern, but justified it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
  • We purchased the Tom Tom for Western Europe app for iPhone ($89.99) to eliminate the stress, fighting, and wasted hours that is navigating the old fashion way (hard copy maps).
  • We each checked a bag with Ryanair (we usually travel carry-on) and checked an additional third bag on the way home, since we did a little shopping (new rollerblades!) during our trip. 

Questions? Ideas? Tips for budget travelling?

What do you think is worth splurging on, and where do you save?

Comment below!

- Jess

Monday, March 11, 2013

Our Road Trip: The End

sirmione, italy

Our road trip came to an end in Sirmione, Italy.

After 17 days on the road we covered 6 countries and 14 cities, 4,969km/3,087 mi of road, and 54 hours in our little Fiat rental car.

It was an exhilarating, exhausting trip. Sometimes 17 days felt too long, and in the end we were happy to get home and get our pups back (they stayed at a kennel while we were gone). But looking back it was an incredible trip, at an incredible point in our lives. Never again will we be newly-ish engaged, halfway between ages 20 and 30, between degrees, and calling the Mediterranean home.

And, like every trip, it only added to our list of places to see.

Thank you to Mike for driving for those 54 hours, for being patient with me while I struggled to navigate for you, for letting me take naps in the car, and stopping for lots of fountain Cokes. Thanks for trucking through in Paris when you caught a head cold and felt awful, but hardly complained at all. Thanks for seeing the Damien Hirst retrospective at the Tate with me (and I'm sorry I fell asleep during The Phantom of the Opera in London). Thanks for packing picnics and posing for silly pictures. Thank you for carrying the heavy bags, sprinting to make it to Chateau Chambord before closing time, and convincing me to eat at that sketchy pit stop in Spain.

You're the best travel partner a girl could ask for, and I am very lucky to be able to explore the world with you for years to come.

(End of sap-fest.)

And thank you, readers, for all your travel tips and for following along on our adventure.

But wait! This isn't the end of our travel posts! We've obviously caught the road trip bug, and we're headed off to Sicily next weekend with our little blue car and two wiggly pups. We're also planning a trip to the UK later this spring, and two surprise honeymoons for later this year. So, you should stick around, because I know you want to see more photos of Mike blowing his nose near famous landmarks ;)

- Jess

p.s. up next - a glimpse of our road trip budget!

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Grotto of Cattalus

The Grotto of Cattalus is a wonderland of Roman ruins nestled on the tip of the peninsula of Sirmione, Italy.

(art history nerd alert!) It's not actually a grotto. It was originally called a "grotto" in reference to its run-down and collapsed walls. And the Roman poet Cattalus never lived there (his birth and death dates don't line up). But like so many other historical sites (don't get me started on the Colosseum), this technically-incorrect name has stuck.

The Grotto of Cattalus boasts some of the best preserved ruins of a domestic Roman edifice in Northern Italy, and set against a lake and mountains, it is pretty easy on the eyes.

We arrived at sunset, and like at Scaliger Castle, the crowds were thin on this warm September day.

Besides exploring the expansive ruins, you can also wander through the site's beautiful olive groves...

...And literally touch history (I figure if the tiles are exposed to the elements, it won't hurt them if I run my hands over them, right?)

Can you picture ancient Romans lying these beautiful tiles? I think they would be right at home in a 2013 house (that's the real definition of timeless.)

Kind of makes you wonder what will be left of our cultures in 2,000 years.

After our visit we stopped for some drinks and salty snacks, as birds chirped in the olive trees and the sun sank lower and lower over the lake.

It was the last night of our road trip, and it couldn't have ended on a more perfect note.

Have a lovely weekend. Next week - the end of our road trip posts!
- Jess

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Behind the Scenes at Malta's New Parliament Buildings by Renzo Piano

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

To those of you who live in large cities in Europe, North America, and beyond, the above photo may seem commonplace to you. But for Malta, this strikingly modern edifice is anything but. 

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

Renzo Piano's design for Malta's first purpose-built parliament buildings is, yes, perhaps a little incongruous with the rest of the city's architecture. It throws off Baroque flamboyance in a city that is Baroque all over, and has more in common with the city's earliest austere architecture than its later ornate auberges and palazzos.

But I love it, and the more you learn about it, I hope you will too.

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

Continuing our tour from the open-air theatre, we entered the construction site of the parliament buildings and city gate. The site had a calm, efficient air about it that is so rare in a construction site of this size. It was also filled with a sense of excitement - the bones of the buildings are finished, and the end of this project is very clearly in sight.

This is Malta's first purpose-built parliament building. The country's current parliament sits in the Grand Masters Palace, a 16th century building (you can take a virtual tour of it here). Malta achieved its independence (from Britain) in 1964 and declared itself a republic in 1974, so this country has a relatively short history of independent government. 

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

Malta's new parliament is composed of two buildings, situated side by side (the visual tension between the two edifices is beautiful). The building on the left will house offices spread across three levels, with the party in power, the official opposition, and the Speaker of the House on separate floors. There will also be a Museum of Maltese History and Political Development somewhere in there (details are fuzzy).

The building on the right will house the parliament chamber. The above photo was taken from scaffolding that connects the two buildings; it will later be replaced by a pedway. 

These buildings are 'on stilts' (for lack of a better term), elevated on steel beams so that the ground floor of the structures are open-air. This space will be public and pedestrianized when the structures officially open, and says a lot about the symbolism of this building: open, permeable, welcoming.

Imagine standing underneath a country's parliament while it is in session!

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

The buildings are clad in the most beautiful stonework, the details of which had me head over heels for this project. These stones are cut from a single quarry in Qala, Gozo. The quarry is cut block by block, and the blocks divided into smaller blocks, all numerically coded.

Why so methodical? Because the architect has designed a system by which the stones are placed on the building in roughly the same order they were cut out of the quarry. A special colour-grid coding system assists the construction workers in this endeavour.

malta parliament renzo piano architecture
the stones arrive on the site on these pallets, you can see their coding below.
on a side note: the stones are incredibly smooth.
if you get a chance to visit the site, touch them!
malta parliament renzo piano architecture

Not only does this ensure the subtle colour gradations in the stone run across the facade of the buildings as they would run across a cliff face (they are so stunning in person) but it pays homage to the very stuff this country is made of. As our tour guide Guilluame said, there is something deeply significant about Malta's first purpose-built parliament being enveloped in Maltese stone. I can't help but agree.

I also think the stones' very specific treatment says something significant about Renzo Piano and his respect for the materials and history of Malta. Prosit, Piano.

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

The parliament buildings have been constructed to be 100% carbon neutral during the winter, and 80% carbon neutral in the summer. The architect has calculated the exact angle of sunlight in Valletta throughout the year, and the shape of the stone facings block the sunlight from entering the structure, while still providing incredible light in the interior.

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

Below is the view from the top of Malta's new parliament buildings: a view that is reserved for the Speaker of the House and his/her staff when the building is completed. These photos don't really capture the incredible panorama you get from up there - it's the highest point in the city. You'll have to take my word for it that it is pretty spectacular. (I don't know how the Speaker will ever get any work done!)

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

And now, we enter the Parliament. Once completed, it will be covered in local stonework, so this is the last view you'll get of its steel bones (which I love). This is the first steel structure built in Valletta; most buildings in Malta are made of concrete and local limestone. 

These photos were taken from a roof-level perch overlooking the parliament floor. The lit up area (above) will house media and consultants when parliament is in session.

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

Returning to the parliamentary offices building, you can see how close the project is to completion, with wiring and venting systems in place.

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

And right below the parliamentary offices is Valletta's old railway tunnel, which will also be spruced up, pedestrianized, and open to the public (pictured below).

Reading this article, you've probably noticed the word 'pedestrianized' used repeatedly. An important feature of this project, which I love, is that there is absolutely no parking accommodated in this design.

This is a big deal in Malta, which is a country of cars and car-culture. And I'm just as skeptical as the locals as to whether or not members of parliaments will actually walk the several blocks from a nearby underground parking lot to the parliament building (currently, they are dropped off/park practically at the front door). But I think this design feature is consistent with the open, permeable symbolism that pervades Renzo Piano's entire Valletta project.

Shouldn't politicians walk to work like everyone else in Valletta, joining the throngs parading through the city's new gate?

I think that's kind of beautiful.

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

Another element of Piano's designs that I love is their emphasis of the fortifications of Valletta. Pictured above is St. James Cavalier, the walls of which have been further exposed during this project. The design of the city's new main gate (photos of which I don't have - but you can be sure they'll make it to this little corner of the Internet soon) is also an attempt to emphasize these walls. 

Malta will vote in an election this weekend, and the next parliament will be the first in Malta to sit in these buildings. 

By Canadian standards, Maltese elections are crazy in terms of turnout (Canada: 61% in 2011, Malta: 93% in 2008) and sheer public exuberance. While Canada does have a predominantly two-party political system, I have never seen such a strong red/blue rivalry as on this little island. It's a cultural divide I don't think I'll ever fully understand. But it is one that Renzo Piano - also a foreigner to this island (he's Italian) - has managed to gracefully navigate in his designs for Malta's new parliament buildings.

To this foreigner's eyes, the open air theatre and parliament buildings - destined to become Malta's newest national symbols - aren't red or blue. And they aren't Baroque or Neoclassical either. They are of this island and this century; they are simply Maltese. 

- Jess