Arriving at Gozo (First impressions of the Maltese Archipelago)

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Malta and Italy were great, yet there was still a lot of work to be done back home, hence, it took so long for me to post. Besides enjoying a great time on these countries, I’ve also enjoyed a little bit more of Italy and San Marino by myself. I may not have had lots of time over the past year, yet the good news is I’m probably being published! I got a deal for my thesis to be published, but I have to translate it into English first and I’ve been working strenuously on that project for quite a few months now. Hopefully the first draft will be finishe by the end of February. There are some more things that limit my time and it seems that I can’t hold true to my promise of posting more often, yet I ‘ll keep trying. The plan for now is to post more on our last trip to Malta and Italy, and in between describing our travels to Spain and Southeast Asia.

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As far as last year’s journey was concerned, we enjoyed Malta and Gozo, where we visited lots of places (yet, as is often the case, not all the places that were in our list) and we had a couple of days running around Italy, as Catherine only stayed for a while there. During our common stay, we visited Cinqueterre and caught a glimpse of Bologna, while after Catherine’s return home, I visited San Marino, spent a Weekend in Florence, walked Via Francigena (one of the best experiences I’ve ever had) and made a stopover at Pisa.

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After landing on Malta, we purchaced a couple of Tallinja cards, which are cards that can be used to ride the local buses for a week and we headed towards Cirkewwa, where we would catch the ferry to Gozo. The ride took a bit longer than expected and we had to wait a while for the ferry to depart for the short trip to Gozo. Once there, we got on another local bus to reach our accomodation after a couple of stops. It was a small distance by bus, but Gozo is a place that is filled with tall hills and our fatigue made us look at the hill that stood in front of us as if we were gazing at a huge mountain.

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Nevertheless, we settled in our room, had some water and rested for a while before heading for the beach. Sunbathing and swimming weren’t our top priorities in the Maltese archipelago, but still, we wouldn’t pass on that opportunity. So, our first stop once on the islands was Ramla beach, a nice place covered by an orange sand and lots of people. The sea wasn’t much to our liking, as the seabed seemed to be covered with stones and pebbles and there were these barriers that draw out the limit swimmers are advised to go and that always make me feel confined. Yet, it was still a great way to get acquainted with the island before leaving to visit another location. We got to wait for the bus in the company of many others, facing the prickly pears that are scattered all around the island.

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Our next stop for the day was Victoria, at the center of the island, were we walked for a while around the village, before deciding to find someplace to have lunch. After that we simply returned to our room and rested for a while as it was already getting a bit dark and we were too tired to try and stroll around the island any longer. So, we spent a rather cozy, relaxed evening since thenext day we were planning to do as much sightseeing as possible.

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It’s a funny feeling when you ride buses for about six hours to get to the airport and the plane flies at a distance of 50km from your home (This, however, would get even weirder on my return from Italy)

Third Stop – Italy (part 2 – A few more days, more cities, I, myself and me)

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After Catherine returns to Greece, I will remain solo in Italy for a few days. Our ways part in Bologna and my first stop is the small state of San Marino. I admit, it seems a bit like a tourist trap, but I’m curious enough to visit the country and even spend an evening there, when most of the tourists will have left the place for nearby Rimini, which seems to experience very lively nights, as it is situated on the Adriatic shores.  Anyway, the most celebrated attractions of San Marino are its three towers, depicted on the national flag, of which only two are accessible, as Montale is not open to public (De la Fraita and the most famous  Guaita are). Besides that, there’s Palazzo Pubblico (Government seat), the Piazza della Libertà and the Basilica of San Marino as well as the Museo di Stato. There are several museums that seem like tourist traps, but there is also a peculiar site, the San Marino Jinja, far from the main town, but I ‘d like to try and pay a visit if I have the time to do so. It is supposedly built by a controversial Japanese religious group, claiming that the building is the only Shinto temple in Europe, and they built it on the occasion that Japan is the most ancient Empire continuously existing, while San Marino is the most ancient republic.

Be that as it may, next morning I’m off to Florence, where I’m going to spend a couple of days. That is too limited an amount of time to stay there, and I have to plan very carefully, but I mostly have to accept that there are many places I am going to pass. After thinking quite hard about it, I have decided to freely walk the city streets and follow a very loose plan. I can certainly try to visit some very important museums, but the lines that form at their entrances are a deterring factor to visit. There’s a combo ticket for the Uffizi gallery, Pitti palace and Boboli gardens at nearly 40 euro, but you must state the time of your arrival at the Uffizi and that means I have to plan quite accurately and I do not have the time to do so.

Therefore, I’m going to try and spend a very loose weekend at Florence, with the less amount of worries regarding my visit. If I get a chance to visit a place, then it’s ok. If I don’t, it’s still fine. Of course, places featuring in my Florence bucketlist are: Santa Maria del Fiore, Giotto’s Campanile and the baptistery of St. John, all three situated close to each other and can be visited with a combo ticket. On the one side of the river, there are Bargello National Museum(many statues created by famed artists), Piazza della Signoria (copies of famous statues and originals of Donatelo and others) , Palazzo Vecchio and of course Uffizi gallery as well as Santa Croce [burial place of some of the most illustrious Italians, such as Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiaveli, the poet Foscolo (influenced our national poet D. Solomos), Rossini, featuring works of Donatello and Giotto], the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella (an early work of Boticelli), Mercato del Porcellino and Orsanmichele (Donatello, Verocchio, Giambologna), San Lorenzo (burial place of teh Medici), San Marco (a work of Fra Angelico, but also the seat of Savonarola). Crossing  Ponte Vecchio, one can find Boboli gardens, Pitti palace (Should pay a visit solely for Artemisia), Basilica di Santo Spirito (Michelangelo’s crucifix among other minor works), San Miniato al Monte, one of the most scenic churches in Italy. Piazzale Michelangelo (Just the view would suffice),

I’ll probably skip the Galleria dell’ Academia, a very popular and significant place, housing Michelangelo’s David.

The trickiest part of this trip will be the next couple of days, which I intent to spend along Via Francigena, an ancient road, leading pilgrims from England to Rome. I’ll try to walk along that road from Monteriggioni to San Gimignano and Gambassi Terme, for my first day there. While on the second day, I’ll try and walk from Gambassi Terme to San Miniato, where I’ll catch a train to Pisa. Time permitting, in case I skip walking and use buses, I may visit one of the following places, Siena, Certaldo, Vinci or Lucca, with Lucca being the most probable city to pay a visit to, since there will be not enough time to get to Siena and Vinci is way out of my way. Certaldo on the other hand is close to Gambassi Terme and a short visit might be possible, in case I skip walking all the way to San Miniato.

Third Stop – Italy (part 1 – A couple of days, a couple of cities, a couple)

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Well, the neighbors… We’ve met many Italians over the years, yet we never had the chance to visit their country. If Italy is half as good and elegant as the Italians we’ve met (we know it is) we’ll definitely have a great time there. I know I will, since half of our stay I’m going solo, as Catherine must return to Greece, while I will be prolonging my stay for a few days. Therefore, the plan is that we are going to land to Genoa, late at night, so we won’t have a chance to view the city, but next day we might head to nearby Pisa, while we are certainly going to roam the five main villages that form Cinqueterre (Map of the villages here).

It will be quite a demanding day, before taking the last bus from La Spezia to Bologna, where we’ll split. Our first day in Italy will begin with a short visit to Pisa, before visiting nearby La Spezia, where we’ll catch a train to the northern of the five Villages, Monterosso al mare and then we will walk south to Vernazza (3,5 km in total) and possibly catch a train to Corniglia (the route seems closed) and then walk to Manarola before using the train to get to Riomaggiore. There are train tickets that are valid for a day (16 euro) and will allow us to move between the villages, while we are also going to walk along the famous paths for some part of the route (current situation of the paths). As I understand the most popular paths, between the southern villages are closed (some until as late as 2021) therefore the train ticket is a necessity. What can we expect to find in that place though? Honestly, I don’t know, but we imagine that the views of the cliffs falling to the sea and the beautiful villages climbing up the rocks as we walk through the natural landscape will be a great sight. At least that’s what we can make out from the pictures we saw.

In the Evening we must return to La Spezia to catch a late bus to Bologna. We are staying near the center and we’ll have a great deal of time to enjoy some morning coffee and a walk to some of the sights the city offers, like piazza Maggiore, Basilica di San Petronio, Palazzo d’Accursio and the fountain of Neptune. Of course, there are much more to see there, but time is not on our side, as Catherine will return to Greece and I will go solo for a few days visiting San Marino and Tuscany.

Next stop on our trip – Malta

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Second stop on our trip will be Malta, an island with lots of sun, history, traditions and lots of settings of movies and series. We’ll be staying at Rabat in the mainland, but the island – although bigger than Gozo, is quite small, so we guess that most places will be pretty accessible. Near Rabat, we are close to Mtahleb cliffs, where we can enjoy some trekking and some views of the Mediterranean from these high cliffs that were part of the scenery in GoT. Quite close is another GoT location, Verdala palace, the official summer residence of the President. That is closed to public, but nearby Buskett Gardens and the local village of Siggiewi offer stunning views of the palace. Another GoT location is the Church of St Dominic & The Blessed Virgin, while an interesting location to visit are St Paul’s Catacombs (very interesting Baldacchino tombs there), while more GoT locations lay ahead as Mesquita square, acted as a setting for the facade of Little Finger’s brothel, while the Mdina Gate is the place where Catelyn and Ned Stark last said goodbye. Nearby is also the Mosta Rotunda, a church that was hit by a bomb during Mass in 1942 (A replica of Bomb can be seen inside). Finally, San Anton Palace gardens is another GoT location to visit.

We are definitely going to visit Comino as well, but we have no idea if we’ll be doing that right after we leave Gozo or whether we’ll return up north to visit the small island, famed for its Blue Lagoon. Any visit to the island without a view of its Capital, would be a waste, so we are definitely paying Valletta a visit. We’ve narrowed down our options while there to Teatru Manoel, one of the oldest working theatres, we may also visit Casa Rocca Piccola, but its imperative to view the Valletta Waterfront-Upper Barrakka Gardens for the salutting Battery (12.00 and 16.00) among other things, as well as the Royal Opera House Site. Our visit will be concluded at St. Augustine Church and at the National Museum Of Archaeology.

There are more sites to be found further South, most of them ruins of Megalithic temples like Mnajdra and Ħaġar Qim or the neolithic Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, as well as the Tarxien Temples and the prehistoric Ghar Dalam Cave, before concluding our visit to the Blue grotto.

Of course we are also going to try and attend a Maltese Festa. It is a religious celebration with brass bands and some alcohol is involved in the festivities. There seem to be around five of them scheduled during our stay, Two in Mġarr & Dingli (celebrating The Assumption of Our Lady) another in Sliema (Our Lady Star of the Sea), in Paola (Our Lady of Lourdes) and Birkirkara (St. Helen of Constantinople). Sliema and Birkirkara seem like they would be the most prestigious ones, so we’ll probably choose one of them. Before leaving the island to fly to Italy, we’ll have a full day to spend, as our flight is in the evening, so we are also going to chill out around the island discovering more of it.

 

Scheduling for this year’s journey (A couple of days at Gozo)

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As you know, this year we are starting our journey from the Maltese archipelago. We are going to visit the main island as well as Gozo and of course Comino, which stands between these two larger islands. Now, the plan is to start by spending a couple of days at Gozo, where we are going to stay near the main harbor, at Mgarr. According to the instructions we received from our hotel, we need to get the X1 bus to Cirkewwa ferry terminal and then the ferry to Gozo.  We are only going to spend a couple of days at the island, so we’ll split our Gozo itinerary into two days. As is the case on the main island, Gozo also has a lot to offer to hungry eyes and minds and we’ll spend time swimming in beaches, sunbathing, sightseeing and enjoying a few drinks. We’ll use local buses to get around and thankfully it seems that the bus company has a well informed website (routes 301-309 and 310 – 330 apply to Gozo).

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We expect to arrive a bit early at noon, so there will be plenty of time ahead to enjoy some sightseeing, although we will probably avoid getting to tired. I guess we will visit Rotunda St. John Baptist Church, a 20th century building with a medieval twist as it is the spiritual seat of the Knights of Malta. We may also swim in the nearby Mġarr ix-Xini, a bay where a small restored watchtower reminds of the island’s past. Then we may visit the majestic Ta’ Ċenċ Cliffs, to enjoy the scenery and view some of the archeological remains near Sannat before heading to Mgarr El Xini bay and Xlendi Bay for another dive in the water.

During the next day, the last on Gozo we’ll continue our exploration of the island at the temples of Ġgantija the neolithic era monuments that predate the pyramids, before hitting the beach once more, possibly approaching Calypso Cave for a view of Ramla Beach, before moving to San Blas beach for a swim.

After a break we’ll continue with part 2 of this day’s schedule, visiting Wied Il-Mielaħ, window (would be a comfort to see another sea window in Malta, after the destruction of the azzure window) and then visit Ta’ Pinu church and the main square of Gharb village.

Finally there’s a group of sights located nearby, the Inland Sea and the site of the Azzure window as well as the Blue hole (I don’t know whether we’ll do any diving though) and Fungus rock, an islet where a smelly plant grows that medieval doctors used as a prized medicine (because you know, if something is stinky it must be a good medicine – just joking, please do not try this).

PS We haven’t actually had the time to plan everything for this trip. We’ll probably go blind for most of the way. Still we are not getting lazy. Personally, I had an offer to publish my thesis, so I’m currently translating it to English, while I’m also working on a magazine article. There are numerous things I want to do right now and sadly there’s so little time. However I’ll try and keep updating on this trip’s scheduling.

Flash escape to the city of waters

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A few days back, we were offered a chance for a short trip to Edessa with some friends. We don’t usually bite for organized excursions since we prefer to make our own plans, but this one was a great deal and one wonderfully planned (couldn’t have done it better ourselves). Before reaching the city we could taste the cherry-scented atmosphere, since cherries are a favorite local product. Edessa is a small town in central Macedonia, near the border with the Republic of North Macedonia (a destination we keep telling ourselves we should visit soon) and is called the city of waters since its center is crossed by numerous streams and the local river Edesseos. The city’s gem is the magnificent 70 m long waterfall, Caranos, named after an ancient king, that leaves the city descending forcefully the valley below, where the ruins of the ancient city can be found.

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The waterfall area was the place where the industrial area of the city was established at the start of the twentieth century, as many mills where constructed in order to exploit the force of water. These mills have now been turned to various museums that present an image of the pre-industrial Balcan peninsula, but can also please the eye of anyone interested in curiosities.

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Our first stop was a very interesting one, as we visited an old mill, which had now been turned to an acquarium –  terrarium. Several snakes – most of them constrictors to my understanding – were on display and we all had the chance to come face to face (through thick glass of course) with pythons, boas and even a couple of anacondas and tortoises. I believe that the people running the terrarium offer a great service to the community, as it seems that they collect the animals that many people get bored with and consequently wish to get rid of. Sadly it seems that lots of people think that it’s a cool idea to acquire a reptile as a pet, but as their pet gets older and increases in size they try to find ways to get rid of it. A few years back a small crocodile was located at a lake in Crete. Thankfully this terrarium offers an alternative as most of these animals would find it hard to survive if they were abandoned by their owners.

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Our next stop was at a sesame mill – yes, it turns out that sesame is processed in mills – and we found ourselves at a very well preserved building. The lady in charge of the mill demonstrated the whole process of sesame grinding as the mill is operational and she explained everything. After she was done with that she explained the benefits of a Mediterranean diet (which I found boring, but it was a great thing to do for the large group of small kids that comprised the main part of our group). A great end to the tour was that we were served a local juice made of cherry and a Greek traditional power bar, called pasteli, made from sesame and honey.

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Afterwards we visited another mill, the mill of flavors, where we were told about the water cycle. I have to say I didn’t pay much attention to that one, as I missed half of the tour since I was busy wandering on the small cobble-stoned paths outside this museum, taking a few photos. At the end of the tour we were offered water – which I desperately needed, yet didn’t get any, as it seems there were not enough bottles for everyone. Still it seems to me that this museum was a great experience for the young ones.

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A few minutes after we left the mill area and walking through the old main street, we visited the old church of the city, a 14th century post-Byzantine basilica, which was originally dedicated to the Lord’s wisdom (Sofia) hence the temple’s original name Hagia-Sofia, like its famous counterpart in Constantinople. However now the temple is dedicated to the assumption, as according to the local legend the Ottoman sultan issued a law according to which all churches dedicated to the Lord’s wisdom had to be turned to mosques. So, the local bishop bribed the officials and convinced them that the church was dedicated to the assumption. I have limited knowledge on this historic period, but I’ve read once that many church name changes, signify a change in demographics, as newer inhabitants take over the old buildings and restore them.

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What was most striking about this church though, was the capital of one of the columns. It depicts rams and eagles catching their prey and it was originally placed on a building much older than the temple, possibly a temple of the old gods. The column itself is also very beautiful as it is made of a red marble and all these different elements that consist this old metropolitan church, create a harmonious composition.

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Last stop, before lunchtime was the city’s main attraction, the waterfall park. I had visited the place twice, but that was so many years ago, I think last time I was there I was about twelve years old or something. I remembered a few things like the small path behind the waterfall and the very small cave near it, but not much else. The place offers great views of the valley below, where the ruins of the ancient city can be visited (one more place on my bucket-list) and it’s a good place to hang around.

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That was to be the last stop of our tour before lunch time, which was great (as is food mostly in Northern Greece). I also had a chance to visit another monument along with a friend, as Catherine was enjoying some ice cream. The “Byzantine” bridge called kioupri (from Turkish köprü=bridge), which can easily be reached if you follow the river upstream for about a kilometer. It’s situated in a shady park and it seems that there was a bridge since pre-Roman times on the spot and continued so till today. So, if you wish to cross a bridge that is supposed to have consisted part of the Via Egnatia, the road connecting Rome and Byzantium here’s your chance. We also had a chance to catch a glimpse of a water snake hiding in weed, stalking for some fish while there, before returning to our group for the way back home.

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p.s. I know I haven’t been writing as often as I’d like for the past months, but I continue being very busy with other issues. We are still renovating, while I have to participate at a conference next week and furthermore we are not yet done with this year’s trip. So far we’ve booked our tickets and hotels, but we still have to take care of minor details. I’ll try and keep updating on that one over the next weeks.

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Camel riding on orange dunes pt2

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Camel riding. Well, that would be a first for us, since we hadn’t even ridden a horse before. The camels looked intimidatingly tall, but whatever stories we had heard about their stroppy character left our thoughts as we gazed at the serenity of their eyes.We reluctantly rode our camels and slowly marched towards the orange hills of the desert.

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The first leg of our trip was through a grayish rocky terrain that didn’t seem too impressive. Even if it had been impressive we wouldn’t know about it anyway, as we were trying to figure out how to stay on our camels humps. It didn’t take that long though before everyone was looking comfortably settled on their camels. The tension we felt prior the ride diminished gradually and gave its place to audacity as our concern was now focused on taking the best shots and enjoying the scenery.

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Our small caravan quickly reached the orange sands and we started climbing up and down the small sandy hills. After a while a feeling of discomfort started overwhelming us though as our limps and back started aching due to the ride. Thankfully we made a short break and stood amidst the sand-dunes as our eyes feasted voraciously on the seemingly never-ending desert scenery.

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Finally after a two hour camel ride, we reached our camp. We were told to sit on a waiting area and someone quickly informed us about our lodging. We had booked a separate tent which turned out to be a part of a larger elongated tent separated by a large rug from the other “private tents”, but the bed was extremely comfortable. After hanging around with our party for a while, it started to rain, which came as a surprise, since none of us was expecting to face rain in the Sahara (a few months later it actually snowed in the desert though) and after a while a sandstorm broke out.

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That didn’t last long though and after a while it seemed as if none of this had happened. We were called to supper and we entered another elongated tent, where we all sat down and enjoyed some tajine and mint tea. It was a great way to end a tiresome day but the fun wasn’t over yet. After dinner a band of Bedouins started playing traditional music and some people even started dancing. It was a great thing to watch, but suddenly someone dropped the idea to leave the camp and walk nearby for star gazing.

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Well, we didn’t think much of this idea at first, but we decided to go along and it was a great choice. we laid on the sands gazing at the clearest sky ever, we could see so many stars and for the first time in years the galaxy. After chatting around a bit and enjoying the magnificent Saharan sky, we headed back to camp since we would have to wake up early tomorrow.

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I think we woke up at 5.00 or something like that. we hadn’t slept long enough and we were very tired, but this, the last day of our trip would be the most demanding, since we would have to spend approximately ten hours on the road. However, before riding the bus, we would ride our camels once more. After sorting ourselves up, we found our camels patiently awaiting for us. It was almost pitch black as the sun hadn’t set yet and we were all too tired to talk. Our trek began in total silence and there was something mysterious in the air. Laugh all you want, but I felt as if I was escorting the three magi at that time. The serenity which came along that silence was extremely soul-soothing. I couldn’t give in to that feeling at once though and I tried to talk to Catherine for a while before quitting my attempts and surrender myself to that liberating silence. Nothing seemed to matter, it was just a party of people, camels and thoughts, slowly crossing the Sahara as many more people had been doing for centuries.

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The silence broke as soon as the light began to turn the dark sands to their bright orange colors. We made a stop before the sun set, to view the sun dominating the desert sky and we walked up the hills once more. After a few photo shots we rode our camels again and continued our journey to the meeting point with our tour guide. We enjoyed breakfast and a quick shower and hopped on our bus to Marrakesh. However, during this ride, we had a casualty that would put us into some small trouble, once we would be back in the city…

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