A to Z Challenge: M = Malta

M = Malta

I reMad several reviews about sailing into the Grand Harbour on Malta and all mentioned how beautiful it was to sail into this port. The Captain of the first ship I cruised on, the Brilliance of the Sea, said that this was his favourite port, I knew it would be a treat – and it is!

Here are some of my top picks for visiting Malta.

  St. John’s co-Cathedral is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.  From the outside, it does not look like it would be much – but inside, it is over the top! The floor is a unique treasure. Each large square tile decorated with coats of arms and other fantastical symbols and marks the resting place of a member of the Knights of St. John. Another highlight is the large Carvaggio painting of the Beheading of John the Baptist.

The Grandmasters Palace is another interesting place to visit.  Built in 1571, after the knights left Rhodes, it is still used today by the Maltese government for state functions.   Some of the highlights include a rare collection of Gobelins tapestries and the Palace armory. One suit of amour worn by a grandmaster is pictured in a Carvaggio painting that is in the Louvre museum.

Clock tower at the Grandmasters Palace
Clock tower at the Grandmasters Palace
Grandmasters Palace
Grandmasters Palace
Neptune's Courtyard at the Grandmasters Palace
Neptune’s Courtyard at the Grandmasters Palace
Caravagio's Grand Master
Caravagio’s Grand Master

I loved the National Archaeology Museum. It is right on Republic Street in Valletta, The collection is from the sites on Malta and include several stone altars and the large Reclining Goddess of Malta.

National Archeology Museum
National Archaeology Museum
National Archeology Museum
National Archaeology Museum
National Archeology Museum
National Archaeology Museum
National Archeology Museum
National Archaeology Museum
Republic Street
Republic Street

There are inexpensive buses that can take you around the island. About twenty minutes from Valletta is Mdina. This is a beautiful walled city and well worth a quick visit to walk around and see the limestone walls.

Buses in Malta
Buses in Malta
Buses in Malta
Buses in Malta
Many modes of transportation
Many modes of transportation
Mdina
Mdina
Mdina
Mdina
Mdina
Mdina
London-style phone booth in Mdina
London-style phone booth in Mdina
View of countryside between Valletta & Mdina
View of countryside between Valletta & Mdina

The Upper Barrakka Gardens in Valletta have a fantastic view of the harbour. Every day at noon, they fire the cannons in a very traditional military fashion.

Upper Barrakka Gardens
Upper Barrakka Gardens
Cannon Firing at Upper Barrakka Gardens
Cannon Firing at Upper Barrakka Gardens
Cannon Firing at Upper Barrakka Gardens
Cannon Firing at Upper Barrakka Gardens

And my favourite part of Malta — sailing in and out of the Grand Harbour.

Entering the Grand Harbour early in the morning
Entering the Grand Harbour early in the morning
View of Valletta
View of Valletta
View of the Upper Barrakka Gardens
View of Valletta
View of the Upper Barrakka Gardens
View of Valletta
Sunset over Valletta
Sunset over Valletta
Sunset over Valletta
Sunset over Valletta
Sunset over Valletta
Sunset over Valletta
Leaving the Grand Harbour
Leaving the Grand Harbour

A to Z Challenge: L = Lisbon

L = Lisbon & my favs

LI love Lisbon! It is very easy to get around, the architecture is stunning and the food is wonderful.  What’s not to like! Here are some of my favourite things in Lisbon.

My favourite place to stay is the Living Lounge Hostel is just off the pedestrian streets in the centre of Lisbon. This hostel has the feel of a very comfortable boutique hotel and, for a solo traveler; there is an option of a single room! Each room was designed and decorated by a different artist, many of whom are associated with the hostel. And they offer fantastic dinners for just a little extra. This is a great place to stay and close to many attractions and transit.

Want a trip back in time and a great view?  Take the tram up to the Castelo de Sao Jorge. I loved walking through the castle and taking in the views.

View from the Castelo de Sao Jorge
View from the Castelo de Sao Jorge
View from the Castelo de Sao Jorge
View from the Castelo de Sao Jorge
Castelo de Sao Jorge
Castelo de Sao Jorge
Castelo de Sao Jorge
Castelo de Sao Jorge
View from the Castelo de Sao Jorge
View from the Castelo de Sao Jorge

The Santa Justa Elevator is a about a block away from the Living Lounge Hostel and is another great way to see the city.  If it reminds you of the Eiffel Tower, it should because it was designed by an apprentice to Gustave Eiffel. It connects the central downtown area to the Bario Alto.

Santa Justa Elevator
Santa Justa Elevator
Santa Justa Elevator
Santa Justa Elevator
Santa Justa Elevator
Stairs leading to the top platform of the Santa Justa Elevator
View of the castle from the Santa Justa Elevator
View of the castle from the Santa Justa Elevator
View of the castle from the Santa Justa Elevator
View of the castle from the Santa Justa Elevator
View of the castle from the Santa Justa Elevator
View of the castle from the Santa Justa Elevator
View of the opera house and Plaza from the Santa Justa Elevator
View of the opera house and Plaza from the Santa Justa Elevator

Here are a few of my favourite photos of Lisbon.

Gate to downtown Lisbon
Gate to downtown Lisbon
Beautiful tilework on building in Lisbon
Beautiful tilework on building in Lisbon
Pedestrian area in downtown Lisbon
Pedestrian area in downtown Lisbon

#atozchallenge

A to Z Challenge: K = Kotor

K = Kotor Fjords

K I always associated fjords with Norway, so I was surprised to find myself sailing through fjords to arrive at Kotor, Montenegro. I even asked someone who was from Norway if these compared  and he said the difference is in the vegetation — basically the trees are different. Other than that, the views are spectacular. I’m not going to say much more on this, but let the images speak for themselves. Here is my  photographic journey of the Kotor Fjords.

Kotor Fjord

Kotor Fjord

Kotor Fjord

Kotor Fjord

Kotor Fjord

Kotor Fjord

Kotor Fjord

Kotor Fjord

Kotor Fjord

Kotor Fjord

Kotor Fjord

Kotor Fjord

Kotor Fjord

Welcome to Kotor
Welcome to Kotor, Montenegro

Here is more about my visit to Kotor. 

 

A to Z Challenge: J = Jewelry Shopping in Santorini

J = Jewelry shopping in Santorini … or how I found myself walking down a very long flight of stairs

JI like jewelry – but I rarely buy any, so how did I end up with a very special piece of jewelry from Santorini? The same way I find myself in many strange situations when I travel – I got lost!

The village of Fira, on the island of Santorini, lies atop a steep cliff that plunges into the sea. At the bottom of this cliff is a pier where the cruise ship tenders dock. There are several ways up the cliff – cable car, steps, or donkeys (walking the steps). The village is not very big – and there are maps when you get off the cable cars. I am usually good at reading and understanding maps.  That does not mean I will not get lost!

Winding stairs up the cliff to Fira
Winding stairs up the cliff to Fira
Fira
Fira

On of the things I wanted to do was go to the archaeology museum. According to the map, it appeared to be a few blocks away. Reality?  It was RIGHT BEHIND THE MAP! The museum is small, but you can get very close to some amazing pieces statues and artifacts from the area. There is also a particular church that I wanted to see, yet somehow I walked right past it! Regardless of all these missteps, I did enjoy the narrow streets and the views of the sea. It was through my wandering that I found myself on Gold Street – and guess what is here. That’s right, jewelry – shop after shop of jewelry! Gold, shiny, gem encrusted, gleaming…. It was all there. So, did I walk past the shops? No, something caught my eye. It was a beautiful gold bracelet with red, green and blue stones in it. Did someone notice me staring at the bracelet? Of course! That is how I found myself in the shop, trying on the bracelet in all its shiny glory. Did it fit? Perfectly!  Sometimes the universe just puts things into your path. I had a beautiful discussion with the designer and his wife. She explained to me the symbols on the bracelet and the meanings behind the three colours — health, wealth and love (who doesn’t want that!). She also told me that I would be the first sale of the day — and this would bring good luck to both of us.  I am a firm believer of sharing good energy, so I was sold. Soon, I was walking out of the store with my shiny new bracelet. So what should I do now?  I needed to calm down form my spending spree and I thought drinking a nice wine would be a way to celebrate this beautiful, if confusing, day. Truly, I am NOT used to buying jewelry like this! I found a taverna, and ordered some red wine and stared at the spectacular view. Directly below where I was sitting were the stairs that lead from the top of Fira to the pier. It appeared to me that the steps looked to be wide and low – easy to walk on. Or maybe that was the wine talking…

View of the stairs from Fira to the sea
View of the stairs from Fira to the sea

Fortified with wine, I decided to walk down the 580 steps from the top of Fira to the pier. I forgot a few things: my knee, the donkeys, and 580 stairs. Sometimes my knee hurts going down stairs. So walking down that many steps, no matter how “easy” might not be in my best interest. but I forgot about my knee and headed off!

Taking the stairs
Taking the stairs — see others can do it!

Then there is donkeys – lots of donkeys. Donkeys standing in the sun with blankets and saddles do not smell nice. Donkeys do not use a “litter box”, so, while the steps are generally easy, you had to watch where you stepped to miss the “presents” left behind! Donkeys also have the right of way. They will not walk around you; they will walk right up to you, expecting you to move.  They are not timid or shy!

Donkeys waiting to go down the stairs
Donkeys waiting to go down the stairs
More donkeys
More donkeys
and more donkeys
and more donkeys

And lastly, there are the steps – 580 of them – and I was a little tipsy form the wine and my purchase. Once you start down this path, you really do have to finish it — there is no way off when you reach the half-way mark.  I walked down the stairs, watching where I stepped and dodging the occasional donkey. I stopped a few times to rest and take photos I would not have gotten any other way (a bonus!). 580 steps … and I finally reached the pier, new bracelet in hand and a story to tell.

Stairs from Fira
Watch your step!

 

Yet more stairs
Yet more stairs
And more donkeys on the stairs
And more donkeys on the stairs — but the view is great!
Donkey heading straight for me!
Donkey heading straight for me!
And at the end, donkeys lined up ready to go
And at the end, donkeys lined up ready to go

Moral of this story is that sometimes you need to get lost, make interesting decisions and see where the paths lead. That and I can walk down 580 steps, wearing a shiny new piece of jewelry and live to tell the tale!

The bracelet
The bracelet that started this tale!

A to Z Challenge: I = Immigration

A to Z Challenge: I=Immigration

II wish this post could move to April 15th, as that marks my ten-year anniversary as a landed immigrant to Canada! This is as close as I can get to celebrating my Canadian  status as an immigrant and use this as an “I” word in the #atozchallenge. I do have other immigration stories to share from my travels, so I hope you enjoy them!.

 

Some immigration experiences are the same, no matter how you enter a country and, if you have come off a long flight, you are tired, hungry, etc. and this makes the experience very boring indeed. I’m sure we could find a more pleasant way to enter a country besides long lines to face someone sitting in a booth who stares at you and then stamps your passport. The immigration officers have to hear the same stories ad nauseum because they have to ask the same questions over and over again. They are probably bored, tired and hungry too!

Here are some of my more memorable immigration experiences.

Frankfurt, Germany airport  When you plan flights and connections, do not book a connecting flight within an hour of your previous flight if you are going through this airport.  Chances are very good you will not make the connection.  To anyone who has done this and made the connection, BRAVO! If you are coming from North America to Frankfurt, chances are good that you are landing early in the morning – and that you have had a “marvelous” transatlantic flight with screaming children and snoring companions. When you land, they park large planes away from the terminal and load you into buses. But, instead of loading a bus and heading to the terminal, ALL passengers from one plane have to be loaded into multiple buses and then all the buses travel together to the main terminal. This has been my experience on two occasions. Once in the terminal, you “follow” multiple and confusing signs until you come to a dreaded line – everyone has to go through a security check & then immigration, even if you are connecting to another flight! You never leave a “secure” area, however you have to be scanned and checked again (and no liquids – so drink any water you have!). I now try hard to plan alternate routes that do not take me through the Frankfurt airport.

The Santiago, Chile airport is easy by comparison. When you arrive, there are two lines – one for people staying in Santiago and one for people with connecting flights. The connecting flights line includes a scan of your carry-on baggage and a check of your ticket and passport. The difference between this and the Frankfurt airport is the whole process is much smoother and faster.  Then, once you arrive at your new gate – there are bars to get a pisco sour. Perfect!

Most places I arrived by ship are easy. Cruise passengers usually use their shipboard card or SeaPass as a “passport” to get in and out of the country (and very important to get on and off the ship) – and can leave your passport on the ship. I usually carry a copy of my passport and other photo id with me with me, in case there is a need. I had a panic moment in Venice while I was on the train that goes back to the cruise terminal — and I could not find my SeaPass. But, I did find it and all was good.

There are some ports that make do not allow usage of the ship’s card. In Tunisia, we had to take our passports and each person had to show the passport, but they did not stamp it unless you asked for it! In Alexandria, Egypt, I used my SeaPass card, but my passport was stamped on board the ship – it’s a cool stamp, too.

St. Petersburg, Russia was the most interesting. We had to fill out an immigration form and have a copy of either a visa or a information from the tour operator contact. If you book a tour, either with the ship or a private company like SPb Tours, your visa is taken care of. Without a vise, you cannot enter. Once off the ship, you go to a building and wait in one of several lines as one person at a time goes to stand between two sliding doors while the immigration officer (usually a woman) checks your papers and stamps your passport – without a word or a smile. Challenge – try making one of them smile.  I think a got a little “smirk” but it was gone quickly!

Immigration papers for Russia
Immigration papers for Russia
Immigration Control in St. Petersburg
Immigration Control in St. Petersburg

My easiest experience was the Athens airport – there was no one to check any documents. I’m hoping it was because we had been doubly checked in Frankford, Germany. I will say it made me a bit nervous – that is until I got to me hotel and there was a little bottle of ozo waiting for me!

So, next time you are standing in one of the long immigration lines at the airport of sea port – take a book, keep your headphones on and bring a lot of patience. Maybe you can even get the immigration officer to smile!

A to Z Challenge H = Helsinki Market

H = Helsinki Market


HThe Helsinki Market is on a wharf near the City Hall and steps away from a central park and shopping district. What is nice about this market is the local artisans and food. When you first step into the market, there are a number of fruit and vegetable stands — very similar to the farmer’s markets around Toronto. The fruit looked — and tasted — amazing!

 

Market Stalls
Market stalls

Next are the craft stalls. Many of them were filled with hand-knitted hats, mittens, scarves and sweaters, with the artisans sitting at the stalls knitting new items.

Knitters at the market
Knitters at the market

There were other types of designs as well, from hand-dyed woven clothing to wood-carved toys. It was a delightful way to spend an afternoon watching people and talking to some of the designers.

Of course, what is a trip to the market without food!  There were several stalls that served some traditional — and not so traditional — Finnish food. I have to say, I really enjoy the smoked reindeer meat balls!

Finnish Food stall in the market
Finnish Food stall in the market
"Paella" with smoked reindeer meatballs
“Paella” with smoked reindeer meatballs

Here is more on my day in Helsinki.

 

A to Z Challenge: G = Gaudi

G = Gaudi

G

Staying on my theme of Barcelona, there is beautiful art and architecture and Gaudi’s influence is one dominate feature.  From the Sagrada de Familia, to Parc Guell to many buildings, it is hard to miss!

The Sagrada is still under construction – and will be for some time yet. These photos are from 2009 and there have been a number of changes since. One tip – go there early and head to the roof before the line gets too long!

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There are more rooftop designs on Gaudi’s buildings.  I think they look like aliens!

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Parc Guell is a great place to wander and see what magical creatures await you. Of course, everyone wants their picture with the dragon!  I finally gave up getting one with just the dragon and took a picture with random people.

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A to Z Challenge: F = Food Shopping in Barcelona

 

F = Food shopping in Barcelona

FJust off Las Ramblas, in the heart of the Barcelona, is its oldest market, Mercat de Sant Josep de La Boqueria. It is where many of Barcelona’s top chefs as well as the general population shop for the freshest food. It is also a busy tourist destination. In addition to all the food stalls, there are a couple of cafés. The boqueria is very busy, so one of the best ways to visit is with someone who can tell you its best-kept secrets.

 

 La Boqueira

La Boqueiria

My guide was a chef who teaches at the Cook and Taste cooking school. The tour of the boqueria was the first part of our cooking class – a trip to the market to buy some of our ingredients. There seems to be a stall for everything, from eggs in many different sizes to different varieties of olives to one that only had meat from bulls. (NOTE: at the time I visited, these were the bulls killed in the bullfights, so I do not know if it is still there now that bullfighting is outlawed in Barcelona.)

Egg stall at La Boqueira
Egg stall at La Boqueiria
Olives stall at La Boqueira
Olives stall at La Boqueiria
Stall that sells meat from bulls at La Boqueira
Stall that sells meat from bulls at La Boqueiria

 

There is one section just for fish.  This is where we purchased the fish for our paella and learned the difference between male and female cuttlefish, along with a secret to buying the best tuna for sushi!

Stall that sells meat from bulls at La Boqueira
Learning about buying fish
Fish stall at La Boqueira
Fish stall at La Boqueiria
Crabs & shrimp at the La Boqueria
Crabs & shrimp at the La Boqueiria

Everything is very colourful – and interesting!

 La Boqueira meat stall

La Boqueiria meat stall

Here is more on my cooking class experience.

One more: F = FC Barcelona! (Anyone who knows me knows this is my other passion!)

A to Z Challenge: E = Excursions

E = Excursions (and Egypt)

EOne of the choices you have when taking is cruise is about whether or not to take an excursion when in port. The ship offers a number of excursions for passengers to take – and mostly you will be crowded into buses with 40+ people from the ship, a tour guide / mother hen and a driver. If you plan ahead of time, you can also arrange for private excursions with other passengers.  These tend to be smaller – 8 to 16 people — and you have the ability to adjust the tour to your needs. One of the best ways to arrange a private excursion is to sign up on a ship’s roll call in the forums on www.cruisecritic.com! You can also “go it on your own” and see what happens when you get to a port. This includes following your own plan, or grabbing a private tour looking for people, or the “hop on, hop off bus” that tends to be close to where many cruise ships dock.  I have done all of the above – and there are reasons to experience each one. It just depends on what your needs are and how you like to travel. For this post, I am focusing on my best ship-organized excursion experiences.

Ship-organized excursions have a guarantee that you will make it to the ship on time. If you need this type of security, than this is a good option.  In most places, the tour guide is licensed. The guide also gives you a running commentary on all things about the country, culture and places visited (this can get a little annoying if you just want to watch the world go by). For my first cruise, I used most of the ship’s excursions because I was nervous about making it back to the ship on time and I was not sure about “doing things on my own.”

Taking the excursion from Alexandria to Cairo was very important because there was an accident on the only road between the two cities and the all the buses were late getting back to the ship. We also had an armed guard with us on the bus. He realized I was alone in the group, and took a few pictures of me – and helped me out when a scammer almost stole my camera at Giza!

Funny picture at the great Pyramid
While a fun picture, it was taken by a “fake” security guard who tried to steal my camera. Several people stepped in to help me.
Navigating the streets of Cairo
Navigating the streets of Cairo

In Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, I took a historic tour of the city that included visiting the Senor do Bonfim church that is important to the Candoble religion in Brazil. Our group was small – about 20 German and English speakers – so it was as close to a private tour as we could get on a ship’s excursion. He was extremely knowledgeable of all the different traditions and religions in Brazil, and even talked about the different meanings of the Candoble ribbons and blessings you can receive.

Senhor do Bonfim Ribbons
Senhor do Bonfim Ribbons
Ribbons at Senhor do Bonfim
Ribbons at Senhor do Bonfim
Blessing
A Condoble Blessing

Read more about my tour of Salvador de Bahia.

One last experience is courtesy of a traveling companion.  On a tour to Olympus, she discovered her camera was missing as we were heading back to the bus after a long day.  We both panicked as we listed our options (forget the camera, look for the camera, miss the bus, take a taxi back to the ship …). We found the tour guide and told him our dilemma. He called one of the museums we had visited and the camera was there. We thought we would just take a taxi back, when the entire busload of people voted to wait for her as she ran back to the museum to get her camera – and they all applauded when she returned, camera in hand.

Returning with lost camera
Returning with lost camera

On our return to the ship, she went to the shore Excursion desk to fill out a comment card. They are so used to getting complaints that our comment card filled with thanks and compliments really touched them. The next day, they delivered a bottle of red wine to our cabin. Bonus!

Sharing wine with my travel buddy, Bryan the monkey.
Sharing wine with my travel buddy, Bryan the monkey.

Here is more information on the #atozchallenge.

 

A to Z Challenge: D = Docks

D = Docks

 Few travelers spend a lot of time around the docks of a city. Docks are usually not in the best areas of a city and most people arrive by air or train.  However, if you cruise, you will see docks at every port, obviously. The ship has to “land” somewhere! I grew up around docks, so I have a strange appreciation for the many things you will see — from tug boats to cargo ships to grain silos and warehouses. While some things will be the same, every port will have some unique feature that tells you that you are in a different place — and it is not the “Welcome to port X sign”! Here are just a few of my favorite “docks”.

I loved the dock at Palermo.  It is very active and has a great view of mountains.  From a cruise perspective, it does not have any amenities, however it is a quick walk to the gates — and various forms of transit to the city. I got this picture as a storm was moving across the mountains.

Port of Palermo, Sicily
Port of Palermo, Sicily

In many ports, a cruise ship does not have a special dock — so you are surrounded crates and cranes. On a trip to Alexandria, Egypt, the containers were joined by a LONG line of buses that stretched all the way down the dock.  The buses were ready to take the ship’s passengers to excursions to Cairo — a 2+ hour drive to the south.

Buses lined up at the Port of Alexandria, Egypt
Buses lined up at the Port of Alexandria, Egypt

The Port of Piraeus is very active. In addition to the usual cargo ships, there are numerous ferries and cruise ships.  To hide some of the typically bland warehouse space, There are these screens I thought were a nice touch.

Port of Piraeus, Greece
Port of Piraeus, Greece

One of my favourite places to dock is at Rhodes. The ship is literally at the gates of the Old Town. I love it!

Docking at Rhodes, Greece
Docking at Rhodes, Greece

I knew I was in a very different place when we docked in Tunisia. The buildings had a different shape — not square and boxy. They were also in the process of building a new area to create cruise passengers — so that might be why it looks so clean!

The port of Tunis, Tunisia
The port of Tunis, Tunisia

In Aregentina, the local wildlife can give you quite a show — like this sea lion trying to get on a cargo ship.

Unauthorized passenger boarding ship in Puerto Arenas, Argentina
Unauthorized passenger boarding ship in Puerto Arenas, Argentina

Or these seals playing on a floating dock!

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Seals playing on docks at Puerto Arenas, Argentina

 

It is also really nice when you are close to the city. At Funchal, you can get a really nice view of an arena that is shaped like a conquistador’s helmet.

Port and view of stadium at Funchal in the Canary Islands
Port and view of stadium at Funchal in the Canary Islands

 

The cruise ship dock in Copenhagen is perfect for just getting off the ship and taking a bus into the city centre. It is also a very easy walk to the  Little Mermaid statue.

Cruise dock at Copenhagen, Denmark
Cruise dock at Copenhagen, Denmark

I could have added so many more — and as I post on other places, I’ll share more on docks. Who knew there was such a variety!

Here is more information on the #atozchallenge.