About Shelley

I am intensely curious, with a spirit of adventure that is tempered by my very strong aversion to anything with potential to cause pain. I love travel, photography, reading, gardening, yoga, music and propelling myself through space (biking, dancing, walking, dancing while walking). I've never considered a lack of proficiency in any of the previous activities to be a hindrance, counting on abundant enthusiasm to make up for my shortcomings.

Ten Random Reasons to visit Malta

If you plan on vacationing in Italy, why not extend your visit a smidgen and hop over to Malta?  This amazing little country has an abundance of things to see and do, especially if you are interested in history and archaeology. We spent five days there in late May, and felt that our timing was perfect…perfect weather, not too crowded, reasonably priced.  Yep, there was a whole lot to like about Malta.

It is very easy to get to Malta from Italy.  Although we could have taken a ferry from Catania, we opted for the less expensive, faster way, via Air Malta.

The title of this post is “RANDOM Reasons” to visit Malta and that’s exactly what you are getting.  Not order of importance, or magnificence–just the order in which they popped into this lazy blogger’s head.

1. The Grand Excelsior Hotel

P1180753It’s beautiful, it’s just outside Valetta’s wall, it’s close to buses that can take you wherever you want to go, the service is great, the pool is fantastic, the views from the restaurant and bars are incredible, and it is relatively inexpensive (at least it was in May, with several months advance booking. )

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The Excelsior’s pool at sunset

Be forewarned, though. The hotel is located below street level.  88 steps below, to be exact. The steps aren’t steep, but you WILL get your exercise.  Which can be a good thing, if you eat as much as WE did.

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The hike up those stairs is so worth it, because where else can you find…

2. Flower Shaped Gelato

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Although there is an abundance of gelaterias in Malta, Amorino was our favorite.  You can’t miss it–it is on Republic Street (the main street), on the right, if you are coming through the city gates. Your flower can have as many flavors as you want.

It doesn’t get much better than that!

And since we are on the subject of food, we discovered this wonderful restaurant close to the Blue Grotto.

3. La Cucina de Bettina

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The owner of the restaurant was also our waiter. That’s him, in the black tee, explaining the menu to customers.

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I’m ordinarily not a HUGE seafood fan, but this was incredible–the best tuna I have ever tasted!  Fresh?  Well, the owner told us our lunch had been swimming in the ocean just a few hours before.  Take a look.

No, that was not the serving size, but close.

We also had a wonderful antipasto platter, and a bottle of wine recommended by the owner/waiter.  I should have made a note of what we spent for this feast.  All I can remember was that it cost MUCH less than we ever expected!

I could go on and on about the Malta food, but I’m sure you get the idea.  It was delicious, varied and affordable.

4. Valetta

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Let’s just start with the festive Republic Street.

Yes, it does look a bit crowded, but if you want a more peaceful experience, all you need to do is duck down a side street.  Cruise ships dock in Valetta, so when multiple ships are in town, you do get throngs, but after 5, the city is yours.

The Grand Master’s Palace is on Republic Street, and there IS a guard changing ceremony every day.

Other activities in Valetta definitely deserve their OWN number, like…

5. The Malta Experience

P1180772Perhaps you arrived in Malta without doing any research at all.  You know NOTHING about its history or the history of its many invaders.  Not to worry.  All you need to do is buy a ticket to The Malta Experience, then sit back and enjoy.  You will be quickly brought up to speed!  There are other options on the island, including one that promised you a 5D experience (moving seats, water spray, air blasts and leg ticklers) but this was the one we chose and we were not disappointed.  Now if we had been traveling with children, we probably would have opted for the multi-sensory extravaganza.

6. St John’s Co Cathedral

It is impossible to capture the majesty and magnificence of this building.  It doesn’t look like much on the outside.  In fact, we walked past it a couple of times without even noticing it.  But walk inside and WOW!

 

We’ve hit a lot of churches and cathedrals throughout Europe, and the Americas, but this has to be the most jaw-dropping one I have ever encountered.

“The Beheading of John the Baptist by Caravaggio is in the Co-Cathedral, but just off to the side.  I needed to ask directions to find it.

The painting is HUGE–it fills a wall.  You can’t get close to it, so I was unable to verify whether Caravaggio’s signature was formed by the blood flowing from the Baptist’s neck.  TIP: If you go, bring binoculars or opera glasses to get a better view.

You are not allowed to photograph the painting.  If caught, supposedly they confiscate your photo card.

No, I did not break the rules.  This is a photo of a postcard, purchased from the gift shop.  A poor substitute, but better than nothing.

7. Transportation Alternatives 

Here’s another tip: forget about the Hop On Hop Off buses here.  You are better served riding the regular city buses.  They are far less expensive, and more frequent.  Normally we are huge fans of HOHO, but this one had a host of negatives.  Its headsets were not reliable.  Some worked–some didn’t, and the information they provided was not that great.  There were long periods of silence, causing me to wonder whether the headset had stopped working.  I was frequently consulting the brochure to try to figure out where we were.

We soon discovered the HOHO doesn’t necessarily stop in front of attractions listed in their brochure.  But it DID stop at listed attractions that were closed.

We made the mistake of buying the two day, (red and blue) pass, so never tried out the city buses, but we sure saw a lot of them.  Next time, city bus will be our preferred mode of transportation.

If you DO decide to go the way of the HOHO, you can get aboard near the bus station close to the Grand Excelsior.

8. Tarxien Temples

If you are into archaeology, you’ll love the Tarxien Temples.  Full disclosure.  We had wanted to see the Hypogeum, but that was completely booked.  And the Tarxien Temples were supposedly on the HOHO route, (not exactly,  as noted above, but we found our way), so why not?

These four temples date back to the Neolithic age (3600-2500 BC).  The Romans, 2000 years later, used the site for agriculture. The original structures were discovered In 1913, when  local farmers complained about the large blocks of stone they were striking while plowing.

There are other ruins for those that are really, REALLY into prehistory, but this was enough for us.

9. Gozo

We wanted to spend a day touring Gozo, and after our experience with HOHO, decided to book a private tour through the hotel.  We were not disappointed with our choice.  Marco picked us up at 8:30, drove us to and from the ferry and around Gozo, making sure we spent our time the way WE wanted.

View of Gozo harbor from the Ferry

We drove by Popeye’s village, now a tourist trap, formerly the set for Robin William’s 1980 movie, stopping just long enough to take a couple of photos.  

I remember suffering through the Iliad and the Odyssey during my Freshman year in college.  Maybe if I had known I’d be visiting the cave of the nymph who bewitched Odysseus, I would have enjoyed the books more.  (But probably not). The cave was closed because of “geological movement”, so we could only look at a hole in the ground, partially hidden by bushes, but the view of the nearby beach with its red sand was quite lovely.

Gozo had lots of beautiful ocean vistas, a lovely cathedral, a great multimedia show in Rabat, (the old center also known as Victoria), fantastic food—AND this rather graphic painting of St. Agatha.  Seems the Roman suitor she rejected got a bit miffed and decided to cut her breasts off in retaliation.  

She looks remarkably unconcerned, maybe because the little angel hovering over her head (holding a crown) told her that in years to come, the Maltese and Sicilians would create a pastry in her honor.  Think I’m kidding?  Take a look.  They are called “Minni di Sant Aita”. Honest.

The Azure Window would definitely have made the list had we traveled to Gozo in 2016. Unfortunately for us, in March of 2017, the arch tumbled into the sea, so we had to content ourselves with this post card image, and a view of the site where it once stood.  Still a scenic  and lovely area, though.

10. Mdina

The oldest city on the island of Malta, Mdina was built and inhabited by Arabs until they were expelled by the Christians in 1250.   Another fortified city, it has the mandatory moat and gates.

It also has the requisite cathedral, old buildings repurposed as cafes and gift shops, but MY favorite thing was the Palazzo Falzone, a 13th century building loaded with an incredible collection of antiques and the very coolest sound system ever.  

You just put on the headset, point the wand at a plaque on the wall and voila, you have a narrative about the article/ room you are viewing!

Olof Gollcher, a Swedish philanthropist and heir to a shipping fortune, purchased the building in 1927, and used it as a repository for his collections of art, silver, furniture, weapons and books.

There you have it.  This lazy, random blogger got you started.  These ten highlights barely scratch the surface of all that is wonderful and glorious about Malta. The rest is up to you!

Catania, Taormina, Mt Etna–Oh My!

Okay, be honest.  Before the G7 meeting, had you ever heard of Taormina?  If I had, it didn’t register, until we booked this trip.

But before heading to Taormina, we still had lots to see and do in Catania.  I’ll tell ya, I was totally unprepared for how much I enjoyed Catania.  What a pleasant surprise.  It was easy to get around, with lots to see, and of course,  with an abundance of great restaurants.

The city was conquered by the Romans in 263 BC, and as with other areas in their empire, the Romans left their mark, which the city has wisely preserved.

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I love the way the old and modern structures coexist.  This amphitheater lies beneath the modern city

Yes,  Catania has the requisite number of churches, fountains and statues.  It also has lots of interesting streets,  like this one.  It isn’t immediately apparent, but as you climb all those stairs,   P1010550

you are rewarded with views like this.    P1180568

As one would expect of a city smack dab on the ocean, Catania’s fish market was HUGE, as were its products.  Check out that swordfish.  P1010572

Coming from coastal Massachusetts, however, this girl wasn’t all that impressed.

I DID get excited about the market’s fruit, though, especially those cherries.  I don’t know who was more excited about my purchase–him or me?  To show his appreciation,  he gave me a slice of the most delicious cantaloupe I’ve ever tasted.   Fresh, delicious fruit… aah, that’s what I call quality of life!P1180580

But I didn’t fill up on cherries.  Good thing because we had yet another incredible lunch at a little outdoor cafe off of the main square, across from the cathedral.  You’d think by now I would remember to write the cafe’s name down or take a picture of the menu, but I did neither.  Sorry, future visitors to Catania.  I believe it was on the corner, facing the elephant’s behind, where the tan umbrellas are.

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On to Taormina, where security was tight.  Good thing our group was in great shape, because we had to walk quite a distance.  Bus access into the town and to the amphitheater was limited, even though the leaders would not be arriving for another week.

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Notice the two different uniforms of the military/security people in this photo.  I think every country must have sent their own people.  There were LOTS more milling about!

The amphitheater was the perfect spot for a group photo.  And what a group we were! All seasoned travelers, everyone was considerate, friendly and easy to be with.  Of course I had my favorites (and they know who they are), but I would be thrilled to see any of them on a future trip.

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Great traveling companions!  Back row: Tom, Maxine, Jane, Sharon, Ann,  Carol. (Ann should have been in the front!)  Middle row: Sue, Sue, Lavonne, Al, Joel and Henry  Front row: Mike, me, Daniel (way in front), Shirley and Owen.

The Greek Amphitheater is still used for outdoor concerts, but those white plastic chairs are not normally in place.  People usually sit on the stone steps, bleachers or the grassy sections.  The plastic seats were set up for the following week’s G-7 conference.

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The view from the site is unforgettable.  See that cloud of smoke in the distance?  That’s Mount Etna.

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And that’s where we were headed on our last day in Catania.  But first, one last shot of Taormina.  Yes, the streets in the city are a bit steep, but none of our group needed a golf cart to get around.  (I’m just sayin’…)

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Okay, so I’ll admit it.  I was absolutely thrilled to be able to hike on an active volcano.  Of course, this being OAT, we were accompanied by Marco, our expert local guide who made sure we were safe at all times.  Marco came equipped wth visual aids, walking sticks and hard hats!P1010643

We learned our group was unique, in that EVERYONE made the hike and descended into the lava tubes.  Apparently this was a first for Marco.  He said on all his other tours a couple of people waited at the base and didn’t take part in all the activities.  Yay us!

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Here’s one of our guide, Daniel’s, photos.  As you can see from our clothing (and my hat) It was cold and windy on the volcano.  I was glad I’d packed my fleece!

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That’s not OUR group in the distance.  I wasn’t that brave (foolhardy) to stay behind to get that shot!  In fact, WE were up higher than they, as you can see from the angle of my shot.

So why did we need hard hats?  Well, when you climbed down into a lava tube, it’s a good idea to protect your head and turn your head lamp on.

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Yet another one of Daniel’s photos–the group inside the lava tube.

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If you think this blog post was a whirlwind, you’d be right. And that’s how it felt to be on the trip.  A very nice, interesting, FUN whirlwind.  We definitely got a lot for our money!

We said good-bye to our new friends at that night’s farewell dinner.

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Once again, thank you Daniel!

 

Most were headed home, but very early the following morning (5 AM),  Mike, Owen, Shirley and I started our Malta adventure, which I’ll be posting about next.

Eureka, We Found Syracusa!

For the last three days of our OAT tour, we were based in Catania.  Enroute, we stopped in Syracusa, the birthplace of Archimedes.  Remember him?  He’s the guy in the bathtub, who shouted “eureka” when he discovered something of great importance?  I don’t remember what he discovered, but I sure did like his word choice.

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If you’re anything like me, you’re probably wondering why he’s holding a mirror, instead of sitting in a bathtub, like a Cialis commercial.  Well, there are a couple of stories:  The original legend was that Archimedes developed a parabolic mirror that captured the sun’s rays and then directed them toward the invaders’ wooden ships, setting  them ablaze.  Valeria, our local guide, said it was more likely that the mirror was indeed used to capture the sun’s rays, but was probably more effective temporarily blinding the enemy.  You are free to pick whichever version you prefer.   Archimedes also invented a crane with a metal hook that could pull a ship out of the water, known as “Archimedes Claw”.   Now THAT would have made one hell of a statue!

We didn’t spend much time in Syracuse, instead moving to the fortress island of Ortigia, another lovely Sicilian town just packed with Greek and Roman ruins, Medieval Norman structures, and Baroque buildings, plus great restaurants and lovely boutiques.  We weren’t there long enough!

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Typical street in Ortigia.  Lots of pedestrian only walkways.

We made a stop by the Fountain of Arethusa.  You’ve all seen fountains before, so I decided to share a photo of this plaque instead.  Don’t you just love it when there is an English translation?  I hope it comes through large enough for you to read it!

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Arethusa was one “wiry” nymph who didn’t rejoice in the “gifts of her body”.  What a great translation!

After lunch we took a boat ride around Ortigia Bay.  (This photo is courtesy of sweet Daniel, our guide, who shared the photos he’d been taking of us during the entire trip.)See that bridge?  Wonder how we were able to fit under it?  P1180508

Don’t worry.  I’m going to show you…

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Our captain instructed us all to scrunch down, then the awning was lowered.  Okay, so it isn’t the best photo I’ve ever taken, but I’ll bet got the idea!

Something else to wonder.  How do people on boats get take-out delivered?  Wonder no more, because once again, I’m going to show you.

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Yes indeed.  That IS a pizza being lowered.

Our day wasn’t over.  We had one more stop before we checked into the hotel.  The World War II Museum commemorated the allies landing in Sicily.   My favorite part of the museum was entering the replica of a Sicilian town, hearing the air raid sirens go off, piling in to the bomb shelter (which shook as the “bombs” went off) then exiting to see the devastation that took place.

There was lots more to see, but I decided to share this poster with the folks back home.

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Lucky Luciano was sprung from a US prison so that he could communicate with his Sicilian Cosa Nostra connections to ensure that the US knew exactly where to land.   As you can imagine, this was somewhat controversial, especially because some claim the US support of the Cosa Nostra leaders only strengthened their hold on the region after the war ended.

After settling in to the Katane Palace Hotel, Daniel took us for a quick tour, pointing out Catania’s version of “Restaurant Row”, where we had a wonderful dinner.

The perfect ending to a fantastic first day in Catania.