Monday, July 29, 2013

Malta on a Shoestring

I've received a few emails recently from readers travelling to Malta on a budget, a topic I haven't covered on this blog yet.

Malta is a fabulous travel destination to make your Euros stretch. Here's how:

luzzu fishing boat at marsaxlokk

TRANSPORT

Malta: Get a week bus pass (available at the bus terminal in Valletta, or at the airport). At €12 for the week, it's the cheapest way to get around, but I'll warn you in the summer it can get very hot waiting for buses (35-40 degrees Celsius) and it can take a little bit of time to get to out-of-the-way places, like Malta's temples. You should also know the bus pass doesn't include bus travel after 11:30 pm. For that, you'll have to buy a night bus ticket (€2.50). Alternatively, you could buy a bus tour ticket (€20-€25/day, includes a free harbour cruise) and use these double decker tour buses to get to the hard-to-reach places.

Gozo: You'll have to take the bus to the Cirkewwa ferry terminal (I'd recommend going early in the morning) and then take a ferry to get to Gozo. The ferry ride is about €5 per person, and you pay the fare on the way back to Malta. Once in Gozo you can take a bus tour around the island (about €20-€25 per person), but if you are really wanting to stretch your Euros, you could also try to take the public buses. You'll need a separate bus ticket for Gozo, as Malta bus tickets don't work in Gozo. A day pass in Gozo costs €2.60.

Taxis/Cabs: Black cabs are the cheapest taxi option in Malta (we love eCabs). You have to call them or book in advance (they can't sit and wait for passengers at taxi stands) but they are air conditioned, professional, many have free WiFi, and you won't get ripped off with 'tourist fares.' Taxi rides within a village cost €8, and €19 from Sliema to the airport. You can find eCabs' easy rate calculator here.

the three cities from upper barrakka gardens at sunset

THE SIGHTS

Valletta: Go to St. John's Co-Cathedral (if you don't want to see every nook and cranny you can use the side entrance to just poke your head in, free of charge, or you can attend a mass. Otherwise, admission is €6.

Valletta: Go to the Upper Barraka Gardens for a nice (free!) view across the harbour to the Three Cities. If you're eating in the city Cafe Cordina is a local landmark but it's hard to get seating inside and you might want to relax under the A/C with the high temps in the summer. Cafe Jubilee is super quaint with lots of cheaper options, it's located just past the Embassy Shopping Complex. Or you could grab a pastizzi and a beer and eat that in Upper Barraka Gardens (less than €3).

Mdina: Go to Fontanella Tea Garden for a drink and a slice of cake or lunch with an incredible view over the island.

Mdina: You can pay admission to the Mdina Cathedral museum (about €5), but it's nothing to write home about, so you can just poke your head in the cathedral itself for a quick look. If you want to really explore a church in Mdina, the Carmelite Priory and its museum is a good alternative (admission is about €5).

Sliema: If you're interested in night life, go to Sliema, St. Julian's or Paceville for dinner one night. My favourite restaurants in the area are U Bistrot, Piccolo Padre, Cafe Cuba, Vecchia Napoli, Gululu, Waterbiscuit and Tapaz. Paceville is where the clubbing action happens, but it doesn't get busy until after midnight. There's no cover charge at bars in Malta, and plenty of free and half-off drink specials, so it's easy to have a really cheap night out.

Sliema: If you aren't into clubbing it's really lovely just to walk along the promenade that runs from Paceville to The Strand. If you walked the entire promenade from end to end I think it would take you about an hour or so. At night there will be plenty of crowds on the promenade escaping the heat, and lots of little pubs and kiosks open for cold drinks.

North: Go to the beach. My favourite sandy beaches are Ghadira (North East) and Ghajn Tuffieha (also called Riviera) (North West). You can take public buses to these beaches, and beaches are of course free! Or, you can just swim off the shore anywhere in Sliema or St. Julian's (you'll see the swimmers zones marked off with buoys during the summer). For sandy areas in Sliema go to Balluta Bay. If you don't mind rocks, the swimming area in front of the The Point Mall on The Strand has a beautiful view of Valletta, and Exiles swimming area (the park with all the colourful metal umbrellas) is one of the most popular local swimming spots.

Gozo: In Gozo go to the capital city of Victoria (also called Rabat). There's a Cafe Jubilee there too, as in Valletta, with A/C and affordable, home cooked food and Maltese specialities. You'll want to walk up to the citadel for a beautiful view of the whole island (just follow the signs). And be sure to wander around the little pedestrianized streets in Victoria, they're adorable.

Gozo: My other favourite spots in Gozo are the Azure Window and Inland Sea (every bus tour goes there, they're at the same location) and Xlendi Bay, a little fishing village with awesome seafood. There are also some nice temples in Gozo, like Ggantija, but if you only do one temple site skip it and go to the one in Malta.

South: Do the temples! You'll never see anything like them anywhere else. Hagar Qim and Mnadjra are the main temples in Malta. You can take a public bus there or a bus tour, and admission to the site is €9 to €6.50. It's worth wandering through the temple museum (it's got some great interactive exhibits) and seeing the little audio visual show while you're there. It can get really hot walking to and from the temples in the summer, so you may want to avoid going at midday.

Tarxien: If you can get a ticket, see the Hypogeum (Malta's underground temple). You'll have to book in advance (€20) but it's worth every penny. It's amazing. You can get there by public bus, and do the Tarxien temples (above ground) at the same time.

Marsaxlokk: See the fishing village of Marsaxlokk. It's in the south of the island, and you can get there on a bus tour or by public bus. It can get really hot in the summer, and there's not really anywhere suitable for jumping in the sea, so I'd recommend going early in the morning. It's really cute, and there's some nice souvenir shopping there. And if you like seafood this is a good place to get it.

Malta: Catch a festa, a local religious feast that is a unique combination of street party, fireworks show, marching bands, techno beats, and religious ritual. You'll never see anything like a Maltese festa anywhere else, I promise. You can find a calendar of Malta's festas here.


THE TAB

If you follow the itinerary suggested above, your most expensive tab would come to:

Bus tour in Malta and Gozo: €40
Ferry to Gozo: €5
Admission to museums and churches: €45
Night out in Paceville, including cab: €30
= €120 + meals

Your cheapest tab would come to: 

Week bus pass: €12
Ferry to Gozo: €5
1 day bus pass in Gozo: €2.60
Night out in Paceville, including night bus: €15
= €35 + meals


pastizzi, a maltese ricotta pastry
THE FOOD

Malta is a fairly cheap place to eat and drink, depending on your point of reference. Mike and I enjoy a good meal, so at most restaurants we go to our bill comes to €50, give or take, including wine, water, entrees, and appetizers. But you can easily get a good meal for two for €30, including wine. Here are some typical food prices:

RESTAURANT
Pizza: €6-€12
Pasta: €7-€13
Sandwiches and wraps: €3-€8
Salads: €4-€10
Fish entree: €15-€25
Meat entree: €15-€25
Breakfast: €5-€10

DRINKS
Bottle of foreign wine: €11-€15
Bottle of local wine: €8-€12 (I recommend local red wines)
Large bottle of water: €2-€4
Pint local beer: €1.50
Pint foreign beer: €3

CAFE/PASTIZZERIA
Pastizzi (local cheese or pea pastry): €0.30-€0.80
Slice of pizza: €1-€2
Espresso: €0.80-€2
Coke or Kinnie (local bitter orange soda): €1-€2
Order of fries/chips: €1.50-€2
Gelato: €1.40/scoop

Here are our favourite affordable meals:
  • Breakfast and brunch at U Bistrot and Waterbiscuit starts at €5-€6 for a hearty meal
  • The Hobz biz-zejt platter at Piccolo Padre is the perfect size for two people for a light meal, and at €7 it's a steal
  • The cheese platter at Cafe Jubilee is massive - a meal in itself for two - and sets you back just €10
  • Cafe Cuba always has great deals (this month it's a free smoothie with crepe purchase). Check their Facebook page for details.
  • Look for happy hour deals (typically buy one get one free drinks, and/or half off appetizers) at just about every bar and restaurant in Malta, typically from 1 or 3 pm until 5 or 6 pm.
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Do you have more suggestions about how to see, eat, and travel Malta on a shoestring? Leave them for other readers in the comments below!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

What Milan is really like


Milano, Milano. It was never on my must-see list, but a cheap Easyjet flight later (and a 7 hour delay in the Malta airport, after a truck hit our plane's engine on the runway!) I found myself in Milan with my dear friend. 

Milan is clean, quiet and friendly. The pace of life is slow (seriously, sidewalks move at a snail's pace), but it feels very much like a cosmopolitan city. It's kind of like Paris meets Florence. There are shops everywhere, and in some areas you might be the odd one out if you aren't toting around a Prada bag. But overall Milan is certainly more down-to-earth than I thought it would be, and yes there were many well dressed people milling about, but just as many regular-Joe's (I was one of them, and I never felt out of place).  


Every city has one, and Milan's 'let's make tourists look silly!' myth is: If you put your heel on the bull's balls in this mosaic and spin around backwards three times you'll have good luck! Or at the very least, make passers-by smile.



There's more to Milan than shopping, and my favourite activity in the city was exploring the Duomo's roof, with its lacy spires and incredible views. Walking directly on top of the church's nave, you feel like you're getting exclusive, behind-the-scenes access to the cathedral's crowning jewel. Every sculpture at the roof level - where it would never normally be seen - was immaculately carved and preserved. It was beautiful (and hot). 







the tip-top of milan's cathedral


My second favourite activity in Milan was eating and drinking, of course. (Followed closely by finding a great sale at my new favourite Italian shop, COS). And we ate and drank well in Milan. What better way to beat the heat?






In the end, Milan is just like any other city (with a few extra Versace stores): Great food and drink if you're willing to look for it, and beautiful sights if you open your eyes and explore.

If you're ever in need of a bit of an indulgent weekend, or a short city break, do put Milan on your radar. I'm glad I did, and I managed to survive the weekend without packing on the pounds, or emptying my bank account. It is possible!

slept at: Starhotels Ritz
ate at: Mamma Rosa

Monday, July 15, 2013

To have a crystal ball


Walking through Valletta with a dear friend to a dinner reservation (at Trabuxu, it's amazing!) we remarked that Valletta could be one of the most beautiful cities in the world, if only it was not neglected so much.

Walls peeling with paint, boarded up buildings, crumbling plaster. It's hard to deny Valletta has seen better days. It's also hard to deny the striking potential and personality of the city.

Undoubtedly it will get there. Nothing happens fast on this island - with a history spanning millennia time has a much different meaning here. But oh to have a crystal ball and gaze at the city Valletta will be in 5, 10 or 20 years. 


On the same night my friend and I made this passing comment it was as though the city heard us. And boy, did she put on a show in response.

As the sun set the streets filled with people attending a nearby wine festival, the city's newly completed open-air theatre (designed by Renzo Piano) was hosting a performance, restaurants and cafes had set up al fresco dining on the city's streets (uncommon in Valletta at night) and every street was draped in banners and festooned with garlands and strings of light for a festa. Piles of confetti told us a parade had passed through the city not long ago, and as we rounded a corner we heard the joyous strains of a marching band, passing by as though performing just for us. 




It was my friend's last night in the city, the same city we met in. The same city we commuted through each morning on our way to university together. The same city I have watched progress in leaps and bounds over the past five years. The city that is forever a part of my educational and professional story, where I and my classmates progressed in leaps and bounds, too. 

I know my friend would love to have a crystal ball right now (as would all of my classmates) to see what the future will hold for us in 5, 10 or 20 years. We have several new degrees under our belts now, but the job search is hard, the future uncertain.

But, just as the city of Valletta will achieve its highest potential in due time, so will we. 

So will you friend.


Thursday, July 11, 2013

Living in a wedding world (for 40 more days)

Between planning our wedding, and writing about it in a weekly column on Grey Likes Weddings, I feel like my whole world lately is weddings, weddings, weddings. We're down to 40 days (but who's counting) and we're both getting excited, and tired. Writing about it all on GLW has been very cathartic, and connecting with other women who have gone through, or are going through, the process has been extremely rewarding.

via Grey Likes Weddings
I've been lucky to cover some interesting topics in my GLW column, and heard back from readers and fellow writers about topics both thrilling and tough. Have you had a chance to pop over and look around yet? Some of my favourite posts so far have been:

// Our two-day pop-up wedding (and the two other weddings we scrapped)
// Why we're getting a prenup
// Forget timeless, I'm having a timely wedding
// Our surprise honeymoons
// The Engaged Lady's reading list

And, for something completely not related to weddings (I am trying to save my sanity, after all) if you ever wanted to know what Malta looks like during a zombie apocalypse (because who doesn't) go see World War Z with Brad Pitt this weekend. The Israeli scenes in the movie were all filmed here in and around the capital city of Valletta. It was very cool to watch. And the movie isn't half bad either. (Well, okay, yes it is. But only half.)

Finally, I'm in Milan this weekend with a dear friend for a quick wedding-free girls' weekend. I'll be tweeting and Instagramming along the way. Follow along, and please do send me your suggestions of what to eat, see and do in the city.

Buon weekend!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Kayaking in Malta (And the merits of stay-cations)


I'm knee deep in my thesis on travel brands and Millennials (speaking of which, I love this Millennial cartoon editorial on CNN!) and I just finished writing about how the "stay-cation" trend has adversely affected the global tourism industry. But in every challenge lies an opportunity (the travel industry just hasn't tapped into it yet) and I am all about travelling more often 'at home.' 

This past weekend Mike and I did just that. We lathered on the sunblock and took a 10 minute bus ride to the seaside, renting a kayak for two and paddling around the shores of the city we live in for an hour.


We got a completely different perspective of the city than we do every day. Like have you ever seen the back of the palazzo at the Westin resort, with its strange breakwaters? Or a parasail straight above your head?



The distorted, grainy photo quality of these photos is thanks to our cheap little Coleman waterproof camera that I love because of its strange, quirky imperfections. But we're considering buying a GoPro to play around with. Do you have one? Do you like it?





And tell me, what is there to do where you live that you haven't tried out yet?
And when are you going to do it? 

Friday, July 5, 2013

What it's like to go wedding dress shopping in Malta (Part II)

I was lucky to work with three superb bridal shops in Malta: Camilleri Paris Mode, Alamango Bridal, and Pronovias. I hope by describing my experiences here I can be of help to other brides searching for their dress in Malta (I wish I had known what to expect), or at the very least, provide an insight about what it’s like to plan a wedding from abroad.

Throughout my dress search I was uneasy working with three shops. I felt like I would be betraying two of them somehow when I ultimately made my selection (did you feel that way too?) But I received exemplary service in every shop, and my final decision simply came down to inventory selection.

Before we get started, dear expat brides shopping in Malta, here are four expectations bridal shops have that may (or may not) be different from what you're used to (I'll be writing more about these cultural differences on Grey Likes Weddings later this month):
  1. You care if other brides have the same dress as you. Most bridal shops have a dress exclusivity policy, so no other bride on the island will have the same dress as you.
  2. You can walk in high heels and will wear them on your wedding day. (You must also buy the heels, and underwear, you will wear on your wedding before they will begin your alterations.)
  3. You are getting married in a church, and will require a veil, long train, shoulders covered, etc. (Not surprising, Malta is 99% Catholic.)
  4. You will wear a pretty slip under your wedding dress (or a crinoline), not an ugly support garment (like Spanx).
OK, here we go!
CAMILLERI PARIS MODE



Camilleri Paris Mode is located in Rabat, Malta, on an unassuming street, in a stunning industrial style shop brimming with the most delicious fabrics, bespoke furniture, fine oils, and artwork. Walking into Camilleri Paris Mode is like entering a playground for the senses, a Disneyland of design. It’s not just wedding dresses here: each level houses a new collection of temptations, and bridal wear is located on the second floor, adjacent to a collection of stunning imported textiles.


I went to CPM twice – once last fall, and once this winter. Both times I was lucky to work with the lovely Rosemary, who makes you feel as comfortable as though you have been longtime friends, and offers practical advice and a no-pressure approach. CPM’s seamstress, Mary, also leaves you feeling assured that you are in more than capable hands, speaking knowledgeably about alterations as you try on dresses (a very helpful experience most shops skip out on).


When I arrived I was seated with a large book of designs, from which I selected dresses I liked, and Rosemary made (useful) recommendations. I then got naked (save for skivvies and heels) and was helped into the gowns by Rosemary and her assistant. Easy.


trying on dresses by gemy

At CPM I gravitated towards gowns by Lebanese designer Gemy, and British designer Jenny Packham, but their inventory constantly changes, and with a dress exclusivity policy (yes, no other bride on the island gets your dress but you!) it's first-come-first-served. Overall, I found the dresses here to be one-of-a-kind, on-trend pieces, from €1,500-€3,000.

The details: Appointments are necessary to view or try on dresses. Camilleri Paris Mode also offers wedding registries suitable for couples with friends and families living abroad. Alterations occur on-site several weeks in advance, with final alterations a few days before. Camilleri Paris Mode offers dress exclusivity for local brides. You can find them on Facebook and Twitter.

images: 1, 2, 3, 4 (instagram)

ALAMANGO BRIDAL

Alamango Bridal is located in Gzira, Malta, in a traditional Maltese building with winding stone staircases, wrought iron bannisters, and 19th century parlour furniture. I went to Alamango once, alone, this winter. When I arrived I was seated with a large touchscreen monitor to view Alamango’s collection of wedding gowns. I selected three, which were retrieved from a back room and brought out to me.


I was shown to a dressing room where I put on an awkwardly large nude-coloured slip (to maintain any modesty they thought I had) and long, stain white gloves (to keep the gowns oil and dirt free). A kind woman (whose name I forget!) helped me into the dresses, giving me great advice about alterations and designs. From her I also learned that the peak season of weddings in Malta is May through July, and most weddings in Malta occur in the morning or at night, although afternoon and all-day events are becoming more common. Sit-down meals aren't often served, and most couples opt for a stand-up cocktail party, perhaps with a buffet. Interesting, right?

Overall, I found the dresses here to be traditionally 'bridal', with a few great, unique pieces (I fell in love with a Spanish lace gown - with a cape!) thrown into the mix, from €900-€3,000.


The details: Appointments are recommended, however, I was accepted as a walk-in. Partial inventory is displayed online. Alterations begin on-site three months in advance. Alamango offers dress exclusivity for local brides. You can find Alamango on Facebook here.

images: instagram

PRONOVIAS

Pronovias is located in Gzira, Malta, in a modern shopblock at street level. Part of the great Spanish chain, its store design is sleek and comfortable. Its inventory is organized on two levels: cocktail dresses on the ground floor, bridal wear on the first.

from my first trip wedding dress shopping
I went to Pronovias twice – once in the summer with my mum and little sister, and once (solo) this winter. Both times I worked with the lovely Marisa. The staff at Pronovias were so sweet to deal with, called me by name, and were always ready to offer advice about alterations and designs.

Before you go to Pronovias you can build a 'Dressing Room' using their online tool, so the staff have an idea of what you're interested in (although the full line of Pronovias dresses are, understandably, not available at the Malta shop). You can also use this tool to make an appointment at Pronovias, and then the staff at the shop you visit have access to your 'dressing room' too. Or, you can browse through their inventory with a staff member on a computer during your appointment in-store. Unlike Alamango and Camilleri Paris Mode, inventory is also displayed on racks (and sorted according to fabric type - so helpful), so you can browse through dresses by hand. Overall, I found the dresses here to be on-trend, with a good mix of modern and traditional, from €1,200-€3,000.

The details: Appointments are necessary, however, I was permitted drop in the shop to look at their inventory. Collections are displayed on Pronovias International’s web site. Alterations occur on-site, several months in advance. Pronovias offers dress exclusivity for local brides. You can find Pronovias International on Facebook.

the day i found my dress at pronovias!

In the end, after trying on poofy princess dresses, sleek and sexy dresses, sparkly dresses, satin dresses, feathery dresses, and everything in between, I purchased my dress from Pronovias. But I'm not telling you what I got. You'll have to wait for August. (Mike does read this blog, after all, and although he accompanied me to a few of these visits, we're going to hold on to that little bit of tradition).

And yes, I went shopping and purchased my wedding dress alone. Contrary to what TLC would have you believe, you don't need everyone and their sister with you to make a decision. (And I always do my best shopping solo, anyway.)

What was your wedding dress shopping experience like? How many trips did you make, and with whom? Was it fun, or agonizing, or both? I find other women's "dress stories" fascinating, and would really love to know!

p.s. i'm writing about our wedding in a weekly column on Grey Likes Weddings, too! Join the conversation.