Tuesday, September 13, 2022

New Year's Eve in Malta

Trip date: December 2021

After 3 days on Gozo, the five of us were headed to Malta itself. We packed up, checked out of our cute farmhouse and drove to the car ferry. It was a spectacularly sunny day so we all sat up on deck and enjoyed the weather and the views. 

We drove about an hour, the length of the island, to the town of Marsaxlokk, surprisingly the only fishing village in Malta. This town happens to also be where one of my friend's mother is from and her brother had given us a great lunch recommendation right on the harbor.

All the dishes we had, as well as the local wine, at La Nostra Padrona were fabulous. We shared some delicious fried calamari and then I had a wonderful pasta with clams. You can't get fresher seafood than right here!

We didn't have a lot of time to wander around Marsaxlokk but Forest and I did go for a quick walk along the harbor and to see my friend's family house. The town is very charming!

From here it was a 10-minute drive to our next stop, the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum. Luckily we had been advised to book tickets to this right after we booked our flights as they only admit 10 people on each tour and there are only 6 tours a day. 

The neolithic burial temple is in the town of Paola, in a neighborhood lined with apartments with traditional Maltese balconies called gallarija. The site was accidentally discovered in 1902 during the building of a new house, the workers ended up breaking through the roof of the hypogeum. That is some basement discovery!

It's a completely fascinating monument that was used between 4000 BC and 1500 BC. There were believed to be around 7,000 people buried in the multi-leveled chambers. There is no photography allowed on the tour but there are photos on the site that I linked. 

It was time for us to head to the Grand Harbour in Birgu, an area just south of the capital of Valletta and one of the oldest cities in Malta. We were excited to check into our new place; the 65' yacht Sea Baron IV! 

We wouldn't be chartering the yacht, just living on it for 5 days. It was a gorgeous boat with tons of space. Three bedrooms, each with their own bathroom, a large living room/dining room, smaller coffee nooks, outside area with table/chairs, and a bunny pad up front. And the Grand Harbour has some exceptional people/boat watching! (The current season of Below Deck is filmed in this marina!)

We were pretty smitten with our location so decided stay in and have pizzas on board for dinner and played games afterwards. 

The next morning was New Year's Eve and we had a lot planned! We were picked up (we had returned the car to the airport so that we wouldn't have to deal with parking) and driven 20 minutes to Attard to have a private cooking class with cookbook author and food writer Pippa Mattei. Anne had found out about her classes which are held in her home; her lovely husband John and her daughter Emma both were involved also. 

We had such a great time, I would highly recommend Pippa's class if you are with people who like to cook. The class was as hands-on as each person wanted it to be, so we all got very involved! We learned to make ravioli with two different fillings and a chestnut soup dessert. 

And possibly the best part was that after we made everything, we helped to set a table in Pippa and John's gorgeous backyard garden and got to eat everything and have some local wine!
During dessert we also learned that the Maltese put a drop of orange flower water in their coffee. It was delicious!

Their driver then picked us up and dropped us off at the walled town of Mdina. 

Mdina was the capital of Malta until the medieval ages. When they moved the capital most everyone left so the town was then called the Silent City. And Mdina was the filming location for a few scenes in Game of Thrones. It was high on my list of places to visit so I was excited to be there.

It's very small and doesn't take very long to walk around and the architecture is absolutely beautiful! Many of the residents were Maltese nobility and most of their property was passed down from families and from generations (and still continues). There are also wonderful views from the town out to the sea!

This would be a very easy stop on the way to or from the Gozo ferry as well! 

We grabbed taxis and headed back to the marina. Anne, Forest and I stopped at a grocery and loaded up on happy hour supplies for our New Year's Eve festivities. We had sunset drinks on the yacht, the weather was just gorgeous, and then got cleaned up for our dinner plans.

We had chosen the restaurant Terrone which is right in the marina so we wouldn't have to deal with traffic and could just walk over. Since Covid was still quite prevalent we also made reservations for outside. It was chilly but I just had a light weight jacket on and was fine. 

The setting (the restaurant is built into the walls of the Fort St. Angelo) and the food were both very nice, but unfortunately they were so short staffed that our service was really poor. It was almost impossible to get our order taken, refills on items, etc. which can be trying.

We headed back to our boat in time to pour another round of champagne and watch the fireworks. We had been worried that they might cancel the show but it went on as planned and we had a great time!

We had filled the last day of 2021 with a lot of fun and wonderful experiences! 

All Malta photos here.

Other posts from this trip:

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

All Around Gozo

Trip date: December 2021

For such a tiny island, there are a lot of sights to see on Gozo. And right down the street from our rental house was one of them; the Basilica of Ta' Pinu. This huge church is a shrine to the Virgin Mary; there isn't anything else around it except for a parking lot, so it's a bit unusual just sitting out in the middle of a field. The site was chosen because a woman by the name of Carmela Grima claimed she heard the Virgin Mary speak to her there. She is entombed behind the altar as a thank you to for her faith. 

Outside of the church are mosaic panels with biblical stories which were created by artists from around the world. The work is quite beautiful.

A very short drive from our house in Ghammar is the Ta'Dbiegi Crafts Village. Local artists each have their own space and most are actively creating while you are there. It's a little touristy but we found some interesting stuff and also learned about the declining lace making industry. The owner of the lace shop wouldn't even let me take photos of their product as he said big manufacturers steal the local designs!

While we were all shopping Thibault found a whole herd of cats!

After our shopping we drove up to the north part of the island to Wied il-Għasri. This is quite a unique place with a sea canyon cutting through very tall cliffs and ending at a tiny beach.

There are about 100 stairs down to the beach but it isn't very steep. It was really cool to see the gorgeous blue water rushing in and out through the channel. There is a cave that people dive in and it's also a popular spot for snorkeling in the summer when the sea is calmer. 

After checking the area out we walked back up and out onto the limestone cliffs. Wow, the views around here are so stunning! And there were so many fossils!!! 

Besides the fossils we also stumbled upon some now out-of-use salt pans from when the area was partially submerged (but now sit on the top of sky-high cliffs!) We then got back to the car and drove to the currently used salt pans at Xwenji Bay. These pans are cut, filled with seawater, and harvested by hand. Some of them go back to the Roman ages! 

There was a basket with some examples of sizes you could buy and the directions to head up the hill a short way to the caves where the salt is stored and sold. We met Rose who told us her and her husband had been harvesting salt here for over 45 years!

She's got a little collection of historical photos as well as different varieties of salt for sale. We were more than happy to buy from her directly!

Throughout the day the wind was soooo strong and the waves were huge! As we drove along the coast to Marsalforn the sea had actually risen up over the road at one spot. Forest had to time the surge and drive through when it was least deep. A bit nerve wracking to possibly be swept out!

We had made lunch reservations at Qbajjar Restaurant. This restaurant has awesome views of the (raging) ocean and a menu filled with seafood and other local dishes. I had the best fish soup of my life here! I think everyone really enjoyed their food, I'd recommend it if you are in the area.

We tried to visit Xerri's Grotto in Xaghra after lunch but found it closed. So onward we went to the Ġgantija Temples. 

Upon entering the historic site, you wind your way through the museum which provides information on the Neolithic Period. There are also displays of really interesting artefacts excavated from various prehistoric sites in Gozo.

After trying to get your head around artifacts that survived from around 2300 BC (!!!) you wander outside for your first glimpse of the temple. 

Ġgantija is a megalithic temple (meaning built with large stones) and are older than the pyramids of Egypt!!! There's really no apt description of the feeling you get as you walk in and around the structure. I'll just say it is AWESOME!!!

Even with how old this temple is, they still don't know the exact use. But there are doorways, and halls, individual rooms, tiny stones, giant stones, and even ancient graffiti that is visible. 

We walked down the street afterwards to one of the last surviving windmills on the island. The Ta’ Kola Windmill was built in 1725 during the Knight's Period. The museum within shows tools used for harvesting and milling grain, as well as how the mill keeper and their family lived inside. It's interesting if you have time after the temple but I wouldn't go out of my way to get there.

We finished our amazing day at Dwejra Bay with the most amazing sunset I think I've ever seen! 

With the winds still gusting, the waves were absolutely spectacular! None of us could stop taking photos! If you are on Gozo, a sunset out here is a do-not-miss.

After some drinks in front of a little fire in our farmhouse (the owner had stopped by with some wood as it was chilly), we caught the bus which stopped right in front of our house, and had a quick ride to Victoria. We were having dinner that night at Maldonado but not in the normal restaurant area. We were booked for a special Maltese and Gozitan wine pairing dinner in the upstairs private space. I'd say there were about 15 diners for this.

The owner talked us through each of the wines while his chef prepared courses as we watched. It was great to learn more about the wines from the area and also watch the chef in action using local ingredients like in this mini tart with sheep's milk cheese, pea hummus, and zucchini. 

We just loved Gozo! If you are planning a trip to Malta it is really worth it to take a couple of days to explore this island as it is completely different then the main island country. 

All Gozo photos here.

Other posts from this trip:


Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Country Count #51 Malta

Trip date: December 2021 

After a year of not being able to meet up for our annual New Years Eve trip because of Covid, Forest, Thibault, and I were landing at our chosen destination of Malta! Malta was one of the only countries that we found to be requiring proof of vaccination which made us all breathe a bit easier. They also were still wearing masks, inside and outside, so it felt safe. The country is rich in history, prehistoric relics, amazing scenery, delicious cuisine, and is on the Euro. This little island country really has it all!

My friends and I flew from Lyon where we had spent Christmas with Thibault's lovely family. His mom even packed us sandwiches made with leftovers and his dad drove us to the airport. Very sweet! After 2 hours on Malta Air we were landing in the capital city of Valletta and my 51st county!

We picked up our rental car at the airport and were really surprised when they told us there was a €2k deposit! Driving is on the left in Malta and the roads are quite narrow and twisty, we also had a manual shift, so it was really nice that Forest offered to be the driver. As we drove through Valletta we passed a horse and buggy on the road; the experience had already begun!

Gozo is an island just north of the "mainland" of Malta and would be our first destination. It was a 40+ minute drive to the ferry dock, then about a 30 minute crossing. It was dark so we couldn't really see much but as soon as we drove onto Gozo we could see how charming the tiny towns were and all lit up with Christmas decorations!

It took us a while to find a restaurant still serving dinner as we were arriving later than planned but luckily we stumbled on Al Sale in Xaghra. Here we had our first taste of the Maltese sheep's milk cheese Ġbejna and I had a lovely pasta. As Malta sits in the Mediterranean between Tunisia and Sicily the food has wonderful flavors borrowed from both regions. My ragu had sweet earthy spices of cinnamon, clove, and cumin and the pasta was expertly made. We were full and happy and excited to see our rental in the neighboring village.  

The village of Ghammar is actually more like two intersecting roads. Our VRBO was a wonderful 3 bedroom farmhouse. Stone walls, tile floors, vaulted ceilings, a fireplace and a pool! I mean it was too cold to swim in December but still! My friends Anne and Brian would be arriving the next day and traveling along with us, hence the 3 rooms.
Thibault, Forest and I set out on a morning hike the next day from the farmhouse up to the lighthouse. It was great to be able to see what was around us since it had been dark when we arrived. Very pretty countryside. 

At the top it was incredibly windy! Like, oh-my-gosh-I-might-blow-over windy! And the views were breathtaking! Villages, terraced farms, ocean... this was our first real look at Gozo and we were smitten!

There were some old military barracks and an old canon up there too. It was a great little hike for exploring and taking advantage of the clear skies. We headed back to the farmhouse and grabbed the car to go into Rabat for lunch.

Victoria, also called Rabat, is the capital of Gozo. Its Citadel sits atop a hill, visible from most parts of the island. We decided to have lunch at Cafe Jubilee which had tables outside in the square and a menu of traditional cuisine. Forest and I had a hit-list of foods to try in Malta so this figured in well with our plan; I ordered the Stuffat tal-Fenek, braised rabbit which is the country's national dish.

Lunch was great, but sooooo slow! We figured after lunch we would do a little sightseeing on the drive to the ferry to pick up Brian and Anne but we ended up being late by the time we finished lunch! Gozo runs on a very laid back schedule, note to self!

Once we had our friends we set off to do a little walk around Daħlet Qorrot Beach which is on the east coast and not far from the ferry. Besides the small beach there are a series of caves which the local fisherman use for boat houses. Across the inlet we could see Sopu Tower which dates from 1667 and was the last watchtower built on the island. 
We walked for a bit around the coastline, the variety of limestone walls are really interesting! 

From here we drove to Ramla Beach where we read there was a bar and thought we would have a drink. Ramla has a wide, long stretch of red sand beach, and in the summer I can imagine it is packed with locals and tourists. But on this winter day we found the bar to be a closed up seasonal shack. 

After a nice stroll along the sand we decided to go back to Victoria and visit the Citadel at dusk. This original walled city of the island has had fortifications built on it since the Bronze Age! Until the 17th century all Gozians were required to be inside the walls at night for protection from raids.

You can walk almost all the way around the ramparts, taking in stunning views of Gozo from all angles. The winding cobblestone walkways inside the fortification take you past shrines, historic houses, and finally lead to the chapel in the center square. 

We were practically the only people there and it was awesome! Highly suggest an end-of-the-day visit for the lack of crowds and gorgeous light. We stopped into Victoria Central bar/coffee shop after and I had a lovely spritz using Maltese sparkling wine, local prickly pear liqueur, and soda water. 

One of the specialties of Malta is pastizzi, hand held pastries traditionally filled with either ricotta or curried peas. We had walked by Sphinx pastizzi a few times that day and their selection looked really good so we decided to grab some and have them for a casual dinner back at the farmhouse. Brian and Anne hadn't been yet, we had been out all day since picking them up, and we were all ready to relax. And let's be clear, Forest and I were more than ready for a martini!!

All Gozo photos here.

Other posts from this trip:


Saturday, July 23, 2022

Christmas Markets & Birthday Celebrations in Strasbourg

Trip date: December 2021

After years of international travel, I felt like I had it down pretty well. I know what to pack, how to get a good deal on flights, how much time to allow for transfers, etc. Leave it to a pandemic to throw all of my knowledge out the window and make me feel like I am flying to Europe for the very first time. 

With the world opening up to travel for the vaccinated, I booked a flight to Paris where I'd meet the BFF and then the two of us would head off from there. Since my last European flight was way back in January 2020, I splurged and booked a business class seat on British Air which had a quick stop over in London. 

As soon as my ticket was booked I started to get a flood of emails and texts from the airlines informing me of all the documentation I had to provide in order to fly, to transfer in London, to land in France, to leave France, to arrive back in the US. It was exhausting and confusing. Pages and pages were printed, as the French love their documents, showing my vax status, atesting to negative Covid tests, etc. When I arrived at the airport in Seattle I thrust all the papers at the counter agent and she laughed. But she also had to go through them all and stamp them with approvals. Geesh!

After a quick champagne and sandwich in the BA lounge I was the first to board and was very excited that my seat 7A was not only a layflat but it was practically its own pod. There was no one in the seat next to me and I was the last row so only a wall in front of me. I was excited for my trip but I was also feeling stressed about Covid so this was a great relief to be far from others! 

In Heathrow I was shocked at how empty the airport was! I walked, instead of riding the train, to my next gate area and I was the only person there!

The BA lounge was quite nice and very large. I had lunch, with champagne of course, and then had a quick flight to Paris. I had the entire row to myself and they also had tea service which I enjoyed while flying over the shore of Normandy. Well done BA!

Upon arriving at Charles de Gaulle, I had to find the pharmacy in order to get my "pass sanitaire". This pass, certifying vax, is only available at certain pharmacies and if you don't have it you can't ride the trains, enter places, etc. By the time it would have taken me to get into the city the pharmacy by my friend's place would be closed, and it wouldn't open the next day before our train was to leave, so my only shot was to find and get to this one at the airport before it closed. STRESS!

But I made it, and I got it. I only had one quick night in Paris but it was spent at a corner bistro with Forest and Nicky, eating steak tartare and frites, and drinking too much. Pretty much perfect :)

The next morning Forest and I were on the train to Strasbourg! When she first suggested it as a birthday location I thought it was in Germany. Strasbourg has a very long history (going back to the Celts) of being taken back and forth between France and Germany. But French it is, it's the capital of the Grand Est region, aka Alsace, and is also the self-proclaimed Capital of Christmas!

We walked from the train station onto the Island of Petit France, the cobblestones and half timbered buildings instantly charming us. We were staying at the very central Regent Petite Hotel and were able to check in and leave our bags as our room wasn't quite ready but our lunch reservations were. Strasbourg was very strict with their mask mandate so even walking outside we were reminded by locals to have our masks on.

We celebrated my birthday with lunch at 1 Michelin star Au Crocodile, which was easy walking distance from the hotel. In fact everything is pretty easy walking in Strasbourg as the old area is very small. 

Au Crocodile is a lovely white tablecloth spot, with beautiful silver and china. It's a fairly small dining room but the painting that takes up one whole wall is not!

We had a great time and both thought lunch overall was delicious. One thing that was quite unique was that there were three menu options at lunch and we were able to choose different ones. Usually set menus have to be taken for the whole table. 

We kind of went all out with Forest getting a ridiculous amount of truffles on one dish, and me having both a foie cooked en croute and carved tableside as well as a lobster dish in which they made a lobster broth and served it to both of us hot in little shot glasses. 
And the cheese trolly was impressive with cheeses unique to the area. After our dessert we had a lovely pour of poire (pear brandy) served in stemless glasses. Very elegant. 

There were a few hiccups with service though, like the fact that when Forest was asking about a couple of different Alsatian Pinot Noirs to go with our meal the somm tried to upsell her on a 200€ bottle! Ah well, we probably seemed posh! haha!

After a quick change back at the hotel we set out for our night at the Christmas Markets. The Christkindelsmärik in Strasbourg is the oldest in the country, dating back to 1570. When France took it from Germany they realized that the market was quite a big draw even back then, so they continued the tradition. It's also the largest in France with 300 stalls set up in different parts of the town. 

We walked along the Ill River where 600 illuminated stars are hung in the trees. When we got to the Corbeau Bridge we walked across and entered the Porte des Lumières, the official entrance to the Capital of Christmas. We also had to show our pass sanitaire to cross the bridge, and of course masks were required.

There may be 300 stalls but they are all pretty much selling the same things! Some cute stuff, some tacky, lots of sweet cakes and cookies, everything was all lit up and very festive. And all in the shadow of the very beautiful cathedral. Because of Covid we couldn't stroll while drinking our hot mulled wine; they had designated areas for eating and drinking. 
Different streets have their own Christmas decoration themes and some businesses also put up huge scenes over their doorways. It's all quite a production!

Right near the cathedral I noticed an antique shop that had some really interesting items in the window. We rang, were let in and greeted by the owners grandson. He was awesome and took us around playing "what do you think this is?", possibly both of our favorite game! If you are in Strasbourg do yourself a favor and stop in at Antiquités Bastian.

Enough shopping, time for cocktails! We found Code Bar down a little side street and immediately loved the vibe! The bartenders were wearing ugly Christmas sweaters, they were pouring flaming Blue Blazers, the drinks were delicious, and they included us in a shot round. Highly recommend.

We also stopped in at Le Douanier for a drink which I did not like. It was too clubby for my taste and the drink wasn't very good. 

Back at the hotel we opened up the small bottle of champagne they had put in our room, ordered up some room service omelets, and toasted the last hours of my birthday. It had been a really fantastic day!

The next morning we took one of the boat cruises along the river. Everyone who had been to Strasbourg said this was a must but I'm going to tell you that we really didn't enjoy it. Our boat was completely enclosed with glass which made it really hard to get any nice photos. It was also really hot on the boat as they had the heaters on with no fresh air at all, combine this with Covid and it was uncomfortable for a whole host of reasons. The audio guide was down right annoying, talking all about Santa and hardly anything at all about the buildings. We did see some things we wouldn't have seen otherwise, in different parts of the city, and also went through the locks and by the covered bridges, but all in all, I'd skip it!

We had a great lunch afterwards at SuperTonic which serves up fun takes on traditional sausages and had a great gin & tonic menu. It's also in a cute part of town that we hadn't been in before. 

After lunch we walked back to the Isle of Petit France and went through the Cathedral. This is widely regarded as one of the best examples of Gothic architecture and there has been a church on the site since 1015! 

Inside it's very dim, the winter light not quite penetrating the stained glass windows which sit high in the stone walls. As we walked around we came to the very unique astronomical clock. I didn't know anything about it but my research says this, " this mechanical astronomical clock is an invention put together by various artists, mathematicians and technicians. Swiss watchmakers, sculptors, painters and creators of automatons all worked together to build this amazing automate. The present mechanism dates from 1842 and is especially attractive for the work of its automatons, which, every day at 12.30 pm, all start their show." Very cool!

We spent the rest of the afternoon shopping through the Christmas markets that we hadn't made it to the day before and visiting a few local spots for wine and cheese to take to Forest's in laws for Christmas.

Our train back to Paris wasn't until 8pm so after our shopping we dropped off our bags at the hotel and set off in search of some Alsatian wine. The light in this city at dusk is absolutely gorgeous so we also spent a bit of time on one of the bridges taking it in.

And right before heading to the train station we stopped into Secret Place at restaurant Aedaen. We walked through the pizzeria to the back wall and saw a pretty obvious secret entrance, but for the life of us we could not figure out the opening mechanism. 
A couple of guys showed up and also set about trying to find the way in; we let them put their fingers all over the surfaces while watching! haha!

Inside is a beautiful speakeasy with lovely drinks. It was the perfect final stop on this super fun birthday getaway! 

We walked over to the beautiful train station, the old building encased in modern glass, and had a little dinner onboard of Alsatian wine and ham/butter/baguette sandwiches. The Francophile in me was more than a little pleased!

 All photos of Strasbourg here

New Year's Eve in Malta

Trip date: December 2021 After 3 days on Gozo, the five of us were headed to Malta itself. We packed up, checked out of our cute farmhouse a...

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