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Monday, 18 April 2016

Project Malta & Sicily



Day 1
We landed at Luqa in the afternoon, after a very pleasant flight and conversation with a wonderful lady from Lebanon. We became friends.
We bought a Tallinja Card each [EUR 21] at the airport, which proved to be a very sound investment, totally recommended [it provides unlimited travel on Malta and Gozo for 7 days, which was more than we were spending on the islands]. And it was hot on Malta and very-very humid.
Our first stop was in Marsaxlokk, a colourful fishing village adorning the traditional luzzu boats. We had lunch there, our best dishes in fact of our entire trip through Malta, at ‘The Three Sisters’. We went on a stroll afterwards and… The way I see things, Marsaxlokk is not a place to charm you at first sight. But then, silently, as time goes by, it creeps into your heart and makes you start wondering-- 'Do I really have to leave?'... :)
Saturday fair in Marsaxlokk
We had to. Our next stop: Rabat. I had my biggest wow there after one of the craziest bus rides of my life, with a female bus driver and a handful of French students. On holiday. What was that? Well, the pink sunset over Rabat, as seen from the park in front of Mdina gate, in the mellow heat and the light murmur in the air.
We had been inspired to stop only a few hundreds of meters away from The Silent City, which is as suave by the light of the lamps as it is during the day, I am sure of it!
Next off, we had to change buses, walk a bit and catch the ferry to Gozo. Then, took a bus to Qala and had a wonderful stay at Gozo’s Hidden Gem [EUR 50; double room, breakfast included]. And a very cool dip to end our evening.        

Day 2
The following morning, after breakfast, we got some glimpses of the totally confusing bus schedules of the island [don’t imagine for a second that the case of Malta was any different!]. As we lost our bus [and consequently, the connection] and had to reach Xaghra… still… Lino from Lino’s Stables came to our rescue and picked us up in Victoria. We enjoyed more than two hours on top of some wonderful horses, Tunisian purebred, under the close observation of Lino, an extremely kind person and a wonderful and funny company [EUR 15/hour/person].
And left very relaxed to the megalithic Ġgantija Temple [EUR 9]; I was the only one interested in its history, so I enjoyed the visit on my own, as Marcel took pictures and unwound [some more]. Over 5500 years of events witnessed by the walls.
The sun was up and about, so we headed to the Azure Window (by bus) and went through some serious climbing until we finally managed to snorkel. It was worth it!
Our caramel and pistachio ice creams ended our evening on Gozo and – two bus rides, a ferry ride [EUR 4.65, roundtrip, payable when you return from Gozo; the logic says that you can’t return otherwise; well, in fact, you could kayak back] and one more bus ride, our evening on Malta would end, too. We were at Sprachcaffe International [EUR 28; double room, en-suite], full of youngsters, yet clean and boasting an inviting pool. Hm, I did think a lot about going for a new dip…
  
Day 3
After breakfast at our joint, we headed to Sliema and started our Scuba Diver course at Watercolours Dive Centre [EUR 200/person; EUR 50/manual (if you don’t have one)], excellently run by Jason.
You could read about it here and understand a bit that we only had time for lunch and left our exploration of Valletta for the evening. The first time around, we went there by bus. And it felt lovely: one of the nicest European capitals – it is the way I perceived it.
One word of advice! Please do not get fooled into staying at Alborada; it may be inexpensive [EUR 60/2 nights; double room, en-suite], but it was one of the worst places I’ve ever slept in!  

Day 4
We had breakfast somewhere close to the beach [I enjoyed everything while in Malta, except the food] and went back for our second day of our Scuba Diver course; in the end, after a few struggles, I got my license. It was easier for Marcel.
We went out to celebrate, after sending out the great news. And arrived in Valletta by ferry: an experience that cannot and should not be missed, at only EUR 2/person.
A bus ride to Birgu followed. A delicate yet powerful encounter, the place where I had an Oreo cake after 3 days without sweets and where I bid Malta farewell. And the constant feel of a happily-lived holiday. 

Day 5
An early wake-up followed: we were planning to head to Sicily. As we were waiting for the bus [which we were meant to change and you never know if you’re about to lose or catch a bus on Malta], we were approached by Maurizio, a very kind gentleman, providing transport for any desired destination on Malta by minibus, at EUR 3/person [you can call 99499313 to book/enquire].
The process of buying the ferry tickets was a breeze [EUR 60/person; have your passports on you] and we were soon on our way to Pozzallo, a quaint little town, which gave me so much positive energy that it rapidly became my favourite ‘moment’ of the entire trip.
Sicily… Aww… Finally… it’s here where they kept the greatest food! [have I said that before?] A brioche, a granita alla mandorle, some Modica chocolate at La Perla and I was back on track. Some farfalle later, and we were on a bus to Noto [EUR 3.90/person].
It was starting to feel hot and drier than Malta. We knew what we wanted – my most-awaited encounter: Caffè Sicilia, the pasticceria of the most-acclaimed pastry chef in the whole of Italy (or so I've read), where I had Cassatina siciliana & latte di mandorla [di Noto] artigianale. Some Pachino tomatoes and Bronte pistachios later, it felt like the end of summer in the countryside; there was a scent of hay, the sound of the station bell, and no ticket office. So, we bought our tickets to Siracusa on the train [EUR 3.45/each], without paying any additional fees.
Siracusa felt even hotter. We walked to Ortigia, strolled all over the place, enjoyed the narrow streets, the clothes left out to dry, the scooters, two sublime orange juices… and headed back to the station, to catch our train to Messina [EUR 9.70/person]. Yes, I know – a crazy day: a bit of the south-east, then the entire east coast, then a bit of the north. In only one day. And from there, we headed to Milazzo [EUR 3.45/person], also by train, after a dinner-snack at Messina station [yes, in Sicily, even these places serve excellent food!]. We had arranged to be picked up [against a small fee] by our host at the lovely B&B Via Nazionale [EUR 33; double room, breakfast included] and went to bed, but only after trying some homemade limoncello. The weather looked nasty.    
Ortigia...
            
Day 6
Our host also took us to the harbour, very early in the morning. We knew that we had our ferry to Stromboli [EUR 87.40/2 persons by Ustica Lines], though they were not sure that we were going to make it to the island. The first 45’ were like a continuous rollercoaster ride; it got better afterwards. In spite of the waves that were very high, we managed to reach Stromboli [there was also high demand for it, as the storm of the past days had made it impossible for passenger boats to head there].
It was gorgeous – the island, I mean. Black and perfect. With the volcano rising above it all, some green at its base. ‘Nothing too frightening, I hope’ I told myself.
We had landed a great deal on Hotel Ossidiana [a turquoise location overlooking the beach; EUR 59; double room, en-suite, breakfast included] and we also got a welcome drink. Our brunch was a delight at Il Malandrino and it culminated with the dessert: brioche con gelato. We then prepared to go up, up on Stromboli [water and food, flashlight, an extra T-shirt, trekking boots]. We had chosen Stromboli Adventures [because you can’t go without a guide above the 400 m mark] and they had changed the gathering time to 3:30pm.
Stromboli Island
I thought it would cost EUR 25/person, but ended up paying EUR 18/person instead. Our guide was Nadia, the only woman-guide that day, and she was tons of fun. The hike is not that difficult, but it is not easy either. And weather can change rapidly. We experienced intense heat and humidity and a cold rain followed in a few minutes. Consequently, the steam formed made it impossible for us to see any explosion, though we still enjoyed sliding down the lava sands.
Dinner was such a treat and… it smelled wonderful that night on Stromboli, a scent I had not yet identified, but it still lingers in my nostrils. 

Day 7
We were very lucky to be able to catch the boat back to Milazzo [because another storm had been forecasted], but before doing that, we had breakfast and spent an hour or so doing nothing – dolce far niente. 
We discovered Luna Rossa in Milazzo and had granita al caffè – best to try around Milazzo/Messina (or so the story goes...). Then, caught a bus to Milazzo station [EUR 1.50/person] and bought our tickets to Cefalu’ [EUR 8/person].
Cefalu’ was delightful. Yet crowded and noisy. And a bit more expensive than what we’d experienced so far in Sicily. Yet choices there were! I had the best pasta of my life at MANinPASTA, a vibrant, colourful, and über-cheerful place.
Palermo was next [EUR 5.15/person]. I had heard many bad and good things about this city, though I was never prepared for my biggest love of 2015 in terms of urban to follow. It did. We spent the night at Hotel Regina [EUR 39.60; double room, light breakfast included], a very authentic place downtown.

Day 8
At 6:30, the Mediterranean cyclone hit the city, smashing our windows open.
By 10, even the rain had stopped.
So, we started to walk: Quattro Canti, Teatro Massimo, Piazza della Vittoria. Then, climbed to the top of Campanile di San Giuseppe Cafasso [EUR 2/person]. We could see the Cathedral from up there, the Moorish San Giovanni degli Eremiti, and understand how they blended together. And you must wear a helmet, which ends up as a very stylish accessory.
@Campanile di San Giuseppe Cafasso
It was then time for another iconic meeting: the cannolo siciliano – my favourite sweet, all-time, at my favourite pasticceria, all-time: Pasticceria Cappello.
Heaven: Pasticceria Cappello
Le Catacombe dei Cappuccini and… we were almost running to the hotel to get our things and catch that train to Catania [EUR 12.50/person].
'On da run'
It's been years since I've fallen this hard for a city. The unseen dangers, the mystery, the dark alleys, the buildings that seem to crash any minute now, the people - rough but jolly -, the art, and the cuisine... they all blend perfectly and Palermo wouldn't feel the same without them.  
Typical Palermo 'painting'
The cyclone had severely disrupted the traffic; at one point, we had to get off the train and board two buses that took us to Erice [if I remember correctly]. From there, we went back to travelling by train. The cyclone also prevented me from meeting my very dear Australian friend from University (also travelling through Sicily).
In the end, we reached Catania and realised that people were strange there; I even thought I mixed up things and ended up in the wrong place! The bus driver [we were planning to reach downtown (1 EUR/person)] forgot to tell us where to get off, so we ended up walking a lot. Then, locals gave us wrong directions [unaware of the fact that one of their squares had recently changed name; hope I’m not insulting anyone, but the people I spoke to had some dumb looks on their faces]. After a lot of hustle, we reached City-In Hostel [EUR 36; double room]. I was pissed off, so I took it out on the guy at the reception, also the owner. He was a lot of fun and replied: ‘Don’t do this to me, I am from Tuscany. Everybody knows that in Catania things are different. The whole of Italy does it one way, but in Catania they do the opposite.’ Bingo! 

Day 9
On our last morning, we tried to get from our hostel to Catania Airport by bus. After walking a bit, asking some pretty stoned guys for directions [it was Sunday morning – very early in the morning – after all!], and walking some more, we were nearly on our way home.
Not without doing it properly: a cannolo and an arancino to go.  

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