Why Sicily you may ask? For savvy travelers, who have seen most of mainland Europe, the island of Sicily offers an idyllic Mediterranean escape with longer summer- high temperatures (80 F) often through the whole month of September. Similarly to its neighbor island nation of Malta (see the previous blog about Malta), Sicily will satisfy diverse travel tastes with its unique blend of rich history, local culture, and maritime traditions.
Basic facts you need to know:
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Mainly traveled by Europeans, the small Maltese archipelago is somehow off the radar for the rest of the world, however savvy travelers often described it as one big open-air museum. What makes this islands unique is that so much of their past is visible today. The balmy Mediterranean climate makes Malta near around-the year cultural, beach and nightlife destination with all of the attractions packed in a small territory. That's the real advantage of staying here. This blog is inspired by Malta's rich cultural heritage.
Malta's History is closely interwined with the history of Knights of Saint John: What we see today in Malta, is the legacy the Knights of St. John left for us. The Knights Hospitaller (the Knights of Saint John), was a religious and military Roman Catholic order formally founded in the 12th Century to protect Jerusalem against the Ottoman Turks invasion. After the Order of Saint John was expelled from its base in the Island of Rhodes during the Ottoman Siege in 1522, a search for a new base began. This led to a new chapter in the Knights' history when the Pope gave them the island of Malta in 1530. The Knights Hospitallers settled in the area known as the Three Cities and more specifically in Birgu (Vittoriosa). After the Great Siege in 1565, and in order to celebrate the victory over the Turks, the Knights embarked on an ambitious project to build a new capital: Valletta. With one of the highest concentration of historical monuments per territory in the world, today, the city is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Start from Valletta
To get the best introduction to Malta's history, start from the capital Valletta followed by the Three Cities. Must see sights are Saint John's Co-Cathedral (an exquisite example of Baroque Architecture), Grand Master's Palace (headquarters of the Grand Master of the Order of Saint John), Upper Barrakka Gardens (Public Gardens), offering panoramic views of the Grand Harbor, Casa Rocca Piccola (a "living" 16 Century Palazzo), Fort Saint Elmo (National War Museum)... this is just short list of the historical sites which you can find in Valletta. If time allows, take a ferry for a scenic ride (multiple departures throughout the day ) to The Three Cities (Vittoriosa, Senglea & Cospicua). Visit The Inquisitor's Palace (seat of the Maltese Inquisition for two centuries) in Birgu (Vittoriosa) is a must!
Reserve a half day tour (I'd suggest Excursions in Malta) or Tours by Locals (private local guides) to get a deeper knowledge of Valletta and the Three Cities history. Especially valuable will be to have a guide with a car in The Three Cities. A former administrative seat of the Knights of St. John, today the cities are left largely unvisited and offer an insight into Malta's Maritime History and authentic Maltese daily life. Although the cities are connected, they are spread out, and we found them not as pedestrian friendly as Valletta and exploring without a car can be a challenge.
As much as my family enjoyed exploring Valletta and the Three Cities, once my parents and I entered the Main Gate into the fortified city of Mdina, we felt like we traveled back to Medieval Times. A former capital of Malta from the antiquity to the medieval period, Mdina is one of Europe's finest examples of an ancient walled city with a unique mix of well-preserved medieval and baroque architecture. The arrival of the Knights of Saint John on the island in 1530 led to moving the capital to Birgu (Vitturiosa) and the city faced a period of decline. Though the centuries, Mdina remained a center of the Maltese noble residents and religious authorities but never regained its pre-1530 importance. Today, Mdina is home to less than 300 inhabitants giving the rise of the popular nickname the "Silent City".
Although Mdina is quite small, dedicating at least a half day is a must. Among the many historical sites worth visiting are St. Paul's Cathedral (second in grandeur after St. John Co-Cathedral in Valletta), Cathedral Museum, Palazzo Falson (13th Century Medieval Palace), Carmelite Priory to name a few. Take a time and wander around the narrow streets and stop by a traditional Maltese glassmaking store for a souvenir (Valletta Glass is an excellent choice). If time allows, enjoy a gourmet meal or spend a night in Xara Palace, a 5-star boutique hotel, member of the prestigious collection Relais and Chateaux situated in a 17th Century palace.Although Mdina is quite small, dedicating at least a half day is a must. Among the many historical sites worth visiting are St. Paul's Cathedral (second in grandeur after St. John Co-Cathedral in Valletta), Cathedral Museum, Palazzo Falson (13th Century Medieval Palace), Carmelite Priory to name a few. Take a time and wander around the narrow streets and stop by a traditional Maltese glassmaking store for a souvenir (Valletta Glass is an excellent choice). If time allows, enjoy a gourmet meal or spend a night in Xara Palace, a 5-star boutique hotel, member of the prestigious collection Relais and Chateaux situated in a 17th Century palace.
Savor Fresh Seafood in Marsaxlokk
Take a Sunday morning trip to the fish market in Marsaxlokk! This is a picturesque fishing village famous for its bright color boats and its Sunday market. You will have a chance to experience authentic Maltese culture and interact with local fishermen's and farmers. The market is an excellent choice to buy local products, and the sea promenade offers a wide variety of seafood restaurants accommodating every taste and budget.
Visit Hypogeum, Hagar Qim or other megalithic Complexes, UNESCO designated sites
The Maltese archipelago is home to one of the oldest ancient religious temples in the world, believed to be dedicated to Mother Goddess. Located just outside of Valletta, the Hypogeum is a underground sanctuary and necropolis dating to 3300 BC. Continuing just six miles south, you can reach Hagar Qim and Mnajdra megalithic temple complex constructed in the same period- 4th millennium BC. The two temples of Ggantija on the island of Gozo, recognizable for its gigantic Bronze Age structures, are well worth the trip to the island alone.
Visit Gozo & the Blue Lagoon
Lastly, your Malta's vacation won't be completed unless you visit Gozo island and Comino's Blue Lagoon. If your time allows, spend at least couple of days on the former. A regular ferry service carries passengers and cars from Malta to Gozo. The ferries depart from Cirkewwa, Malta to the seaport of Mgarr, Gozo and take about 25 minutes. For schedule and fare information visit Gozo Channel website. Once on the island take the Public Bus to the capital of Gozo.
Although the bus service is not as frequent as in Malta, is a better alternative than renting a car. Navigating through one-lane roads and sharp turns can be a real challenge. If your budget allows reserve a driver/ guide who can save your time and bring an inside knowledge.
The capital Victoria known for its Medieval Citadel and baroque era architecture is a good base to explore the rest of the island. Check PlanetWire for a complete list of must-see attractions on the island of Gozo.
If you are time constrained, there are day trips organized from Malta to Gozo and the Blue Lagoon
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...What do you know about Balí?
Growing up in Eastern Europe, I knew almost nothing about the "Island of Gods" besides the fact is an exotic destination and is far, far away. I never even dreamed that l would have the chance to visit one day... Well, when an opportunity presented itself earlier this year, my husband and I embraced it and we were off on our first trip to Southeast Asia. Balí was the last stop in our multi-county Asian adventure and delivered an unforgettable experience.
You might find it interesting to learn that Balí is part of Indonesia, which is a mostly-Muslim country, but the island itself is home to Balinese Hindu minority. Another interesting fact is that most Balinese are bilingual, if not trilingual (Indonesian, Balinese, English). The local currency is Indonesian Rupiah and there is No visa required for US citizens.
Travel Tip: Exchange plenty of $ to local currency at the airport, foreign currency is rarely accepted for payments.
Travel Tip: Arrange transfer to your hotel ahead of time - In the event, you arrive after midnight (as we did), and there are no transfers available to your hotel so late at night, there are taxi drivers waiting in the arrival hall that offer their services. There is also a tourists desk that can help you to negotiate a lower rate.
What to expect from Balinese people?
My husband and I found the locals quite friendly and curious to learn about different countries and cultures. Everybody we have interactions with was helpful and respectful.
Travel Tip: Respect the local traditions - Balinese are pious people and their beliefs reflect daily life. The most visible signs are the tiny offerings known as "canang sari" that can be seen everywhere (in Balinese home, workplace, in the restaurants and streets. Every house has a Pura (Balinese for "temple"), attached to it -- even the poor houses have a small one.
When to visit Bali?
With average temperature 30 C throughout the year, Balí is generally a year-round destination, with only two seasons: wet season and dry season. Note that the High season is during the months of July and August, during Easter Holidays, and Christmas / New Year (December until 1st week of January).
Travel Tip: The best time to visit the island is before or after the High Season, typically April, May, June, and September.
How long to stay in Bali?
Balí is a comparatively big island (2230 sq. miles), and it's best to allow at least a week to explore it. If you are planning to include in your trip the nearby islands Lombok/Gili Islands (accessible via Fast Boat, Public Ferry or Air), you should consider staying at least 10 days.
How to get around in Bali?
Travel Tip: Renting a car or scooter is an option only for an experienced driver used to drive on the local roads. Especially inland, in the countryside, the GPS often doesn't work and expect unmarked dirt roads with signs only in the Balinese language.
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As a part of our voyage to the Northern Cyclades, the Star Clipper was scheduled to arrive in Kusadasi -- a popular resort town at the west coast of Turkey, in the Aegean Sea. This part of the world is one of the cradles of the ancient civilizations and has an abundance of archaeological sites, including Ephesus (a UNESCO site located about 30 min drive from the port). Being interested in ancient history, for me the opportunity to visit this cultural treasure was like a dream come true.
As one of the most recognized archaeological sites in Turkey, Ephesus has a long history dating back to the 10th century, BC. The city's strategic geographic position led for its recognition as one of the largest trade centers in antiquity. However, the main draw to Ephesus was the Temple of the Goddess Artemis, known as one of the "Seven Wonders" of the ancient world. According to ancient historians, the edifice was four times larger than the Parthenon in Athens. Its splendor attracted many worshipers and pilgrims, strengthening the cult of Artemis and facilitating the flourishing or the trade. Over the centuries, the temple was destroyed and rebuilt few times. One of the legends that grew up about a great fire in 356 BC was that the night that the temple burned, was the very same night when Alexander the Great was born. Plutarch remarked that the goddess Artemis was so preoccupied in ensuring the safe birth of Alexander, that she neglected her own temple.
In a sunny summer morning, our ship docked right in the heart of the bustling town of Kusadasi, pedestrian distance from merchant shops, restaurants and cafes with tasty baklava and complimentary Wi-Fi.
I had arranged for an excursion to Ephesus through "Shore Excursions Group", a company offering excursions for cruise guests, but in smaller groups, and at lower rates compared to the ones offered through the cruise line. The representative of the company and our local Turkish guide Emre met us right outside of the port security point, holding a sign with our names on it. To our great surprise, it turned out to be a private tour because nobody else had reserved excursion at this time.
We spent over three hours at this magnificent archaeological site, having enough time for Turkish coffee and figs, courtesy of our knowledgeable guide, and immersing ourselves in these unique and memorable surroundings.
Travel Tip: If you happen to visit Ephesus as a part of cruise itinerary and you are history buff , I highly recommend to reserve a private tour/guide ahead of time.
A jewel to highlight of this ancient city, the Library of Celsus took our breath away with its intricate details, followed by the imposing Great Theater, the largest in Anatolia, once with capacity of 25,000 seats. We ended our tour, walking on the road which once welcomed the most famous couple in the Antiquity -- The Roman general Mark Antony and Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt.
On our way back to Kusadasi, we visited a local carpet producing center. We were little hesitant but end up to be very positive and educational experience, and we learned about traditional hand-woven silk carpet techniques.
We spent the rest of the day savoring local flavors, shopping for souvenirs and enjoying a local belly dancing show on board Star Clipper.
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