The Not so Magical Island of Malta

After a long sojourn in Italy, we headed to Malta to meet up with the Sherlock clan and dear friend Glenda. I’m glad we did because without fabulous company I don’t think we would have survived Malta. We had a wonderful time relaxing with the family, eating way too much, and regaling a fresh(ish) audience with our tales from the road, but as a destination Malta did not enchant us. As Jeff so aptly put it: Malta has the prices of Europe, the customer service of the Middle East, and the cultural allure of neither. So it is.

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The Sherlock Clan + Glenda arrive in Malta!!!
First the Good

Lest I devolve into negative-Nancy-ism, I’ll begin with the coolest thing we did in Malta: the Hypogeum (or the Gorgandulum, as it is colloquially known in the Sherlock family). This site – along with the megalithic structures of Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra and Ggantija on Gozo – is old. Like, before-the-pyramids old. Long before other Mediterranean empires came onto the scene Malta was inhabited by a sophisticated and highly-organized civilization referred to simply as the ‘temple builders’. The temple builders left mysterious, round megalithic structures on the Maltese Islands (Malta, Gozo, and Camino), and the relics of this enigmatic culture are quite fascinating.

The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum (aka Gorgandulum) is a prehistoric underground burial site built by the temple builders into the soft limestone bedrock. Construction of the Hypogeum began in 4000 BC, and the complex was expanded and used continually until 2500 BC. The Hypogeum spans over 3 levels and has remnants of red ochre wall paintings that were very, very cool. The site was first discovered in 1902 and excavated by Sir Themistocles Zammit (best. cat. name. ever), and because it is such a fragile ecosystem it has extremely restricted tourist access. Luckily for us, Glenda and Liz are super planners and reserved our Gorgandulum tickets months ago.

 

In addition to visiting the Hypogeum, we saw the Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra Temple complexes on Malta and the oldest temple of all, the Ggantija Temple on the island of Gozo. Several of these temples have very precise alignments to solar phenomena like the equinoxes, underscoring just how sophisticated these ancient people’s knowledge of math, astronomy, and physics must have been. Pretty cool.

 

My favorite thing about the temple builders are the unusual fertility goddess relics that have been found inside all of their structures. Sometimes called the ‘fat ladies’, these goddess statues are extremely obese female figures depicted as wearing pleated skirts down to their fat cankles. Often fashioned with removable (or interchangeable) heads, these corpulent goddesses are really weird. Their clothing and hair styles appear modern, and I’m amazed that ancient people were able to conceptualize such obese figures. I doubt that they’d ever seen a fat person, let alone a really fat person. Oh, how little we know about the ancient worldview.

 

Now it’s Negative Nancy’s Turn

Okay, now that I’ve said what I liked about Malta Negative Nancy gets to air her grievances. To quote Frank Costanza at the beginning of Festivus: I got a lotta of problems with you people!!!

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The logistics of purchasing food on the island of Malta was hellish. There are zero grocery stores in the tourist area. Literally zero. I get that they’re catering to Brits fresh off the cruise ship, but normal humans need to buy things like milk and bread. There is a twee British hold over store called The Wembley Store (of course) that sells quaint gift hampers of tinned beans and clotted cream, but they don’t have anything you’d actually need, like, I don’t know… milk. When I finally tracked down a green grocer, they were selling rotten food — tomatoes that were actually decaying. I’ve never seen such a thing before, and I’m still offended thinking about it. WTF, Malta.

I can deal with crappy food if other things are interesting (hello Uzbekistan!), but the thing that pushed me over the edge in Malta was the lack of culture. Never before have I spent 2 weeks in a country and come away with so little insight into the people. I think that the issue is two-fold. First, I think that there just isn’t much culture in Malta to be observed. People don’t have a public life like in other countries so you’re just not going to see anything interesting as a tourist. No markets, no festivals, no nothin’. Second, the Maltese are… to put it kindly… not so nice. There I said it. I know it’s not popular to say but as a general class I disliked the Maltese almost as much as I dislike the Serbs, and that is something.

I found many people working in the tourism industry to be hostile (on a scale of slightly to sociopath) and unpleasant to interact with. We had two highly unpleasant encounters and several other icky interactions that contributed to my less than glowing-impression of the Maltese. The worst incident was an egomaniacal cruise ship ‘captain’ who singled me out and harassed me aggressively about ‘respecting him’. He was horrible, and actually provoked me to the point that I refused to sail on his ship and went home for the day. I honestly have no explanation for this offensive experience and in 6-months of world travel I have never been so pissed off.

The next day (not good timing) Jeff and I went to pick up a rental car car we had reserved. Naturally we arrive to find a completely different car that was a manual transmission. This kind of mix-up happens and really shouldn’t have been a huge deal but the rental car guy was extremely rude and absolutely refused to work anything out. No customer service, no problem solving whatsoever. He just jumped in the car and sped off, leaving us to figure out how to arrange transport to the island of Gozo for 6 people with approximately 60 bags. I’m not a traveler who needs to be coddled but the hostility of the Maltese was a shock.

So there is my rant: bad access to food, lack of culture, and shitty people. My Malta induced snit caused lots of other things about the island to pissed me off, but I’ll leave it at that. It seems like there are other travelers out there (like this gal) who had a less than great experience in Malta, so at least I’m not alone. I think that what I really need to heal this is a Maltese volunteer to complete the rites of Festivus and fight me. I’d really, really like that…

The redemptive island of Gozo

After a rough week on the main island of Malta, the whole crew headed north to the smaller island of Gozo (sans our rental car but whateves). Gozo is the ‘second’ island in the Maltese archipelago and Gozitans are regarded by the Maltese as less sophisticated country-cousins. We, however, found the smaller island to be a much needed respite. People are friendlier, the atmosphere is more relaxed, and we just had an overall better experience. We stayed at a really great farmhouse with a pool and a very friendly gaggle of neighborhood cats – so of course we were pleased. We named our favorite (i.e. the most persistent) kitty Ħal. Ħal was a little sneaky and had some secret routes into our house, but we loved him and plied him with generous servings of wet cat food.

 

My favorite Gozitan experience was dinner at local place called Tal-Furnar Restaurant and Bakery. The wood burning oven at this place has cooked something every single day for over a century, across 4 generations of the owners family. The place is not fancy – it’s nothing more than a shabby collection of tables on the pavement perched perilously close to the busy road – but Jeff and I finally felt like we had our first ‘authentic’ experience in Malta. We had a great dinner of local pasta and Gozitan Ftira (basically a pizza), and I was happy to see at least a bit of local life in Gozo.

 

For such a small country, Malta packed a punch, with some of the most frustrating experiences of our many months on the road. Luckily, Gozo gave us some good downtime and the relax time with loved ones was a wonderful balm for our Maltese woes.

After two weeks in Malta we packed up and headed to Valencia, Spain.

P.S. Thanks Glenda and Hilary for the photos!!! You guys did well. I’m impressed.

The Italian Finale – Sicily

It feels like we’ve been in Italy forever. Is it our home now? After leaving Lipari, the place where it all began, we headed to our Italian finale: Palermo.

Palermo is the capitol of Sicily. The city feels like Italy-in-the-raw and it’s grittier than we expected – which of course is a good thing. The whole place has a deep sense of faded grandeur and crumbling glory. Palermo’s dense city streets have two millennia’s worth of buildings from the Romans, Arabs, Spanish, and Italians — all crammed together in a bizarre but captivating architectural environment. The narrow streets are buzzing with classic ‘Italian Stereotypes’: sharp tonged kids, swarthy men in impeccably tailored suits, and ancient nonnas going to weekday mass. (side-bar: I saw a swarthy well-suited man throw-up dramatically whilst two nonnas fanned him energetically and a disinterested shop keeper splashed buckets of water over the vomit; I will forever replay this scene in my head when I think of Palermo.)

Arab-Norman Palermo

One of the most fascinating legacies of Sicily’s very multi-cultural past is a collection of nine loosely contemporary structures collectively referred to as the ‘Arab and Norman’ churches. Designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites, these structures are super weird but very cool architectural Frankensteins dotting Sicily. After the Norman conquest of Sicily in the 1000’s, the vanquished Arabs were kindly asked to build some churches in an Arabesque style (or so the story goes). The result is quite odd but interesting, and provides an all too rare historical example of Christian and Islamic collaboration. These churches have mosque-like domes and minarets, Moroccan style inlayed floors, and over-the-top gold Byzantine era mosaics adorning the interior walls. It’s a schizophrenic vibe but somehow it works.

Tile Heaven

I was pretty impressed with Palermo’s number and diversity of architectural gems. In addition to the cool Arab and Norman sites, we heard about a tiny museum that houses Italy’s largest collection of old tiles. My interest was piqued and I emailed the museum to arrange a visit. Tucked away in an old house on the outskirts of Palermo’s old city, the Museum of Tiles- Stanze al Genio was an amazing collection. The tiles are displayed in a private home and an almost-scarily enthusiastic caretaker showed us around. This guy LOVES tiles – LOVES them! The collection has tiles from the 1700s to the modern day, and it’s really incredible to see how modern some of the older tiles look. You get a sense of Italian design’s influence on many movements of the 20th century, from Art Nouveau to Art Deco to the Modernist movement. I have a newfound appreciation for the Italian design aesthetic and I think even Jeff enjoyed himself (a teeny bit) at the tile museum.

More Street Food!

We loved the street food in Naples, so Palermo seemed like a wonderful opportunity for a culinary encore. It turns out that while some of the street food is excellent, there’s also some street food that is – how do I say this diplomatically?gross. I don’t really ‘do’ organ meat, and a big juicy liver ‘n lung sandwich isn’t for me (though Jeff was a champ on this one). And grilled intestines? I’ll eat it but I’m not happy about it. I have to say, though, the grossness was part of the fun and we ended up loving the tour so much we did it twice.

There were some gastronomic hits in addition to the misses. Arancinas, which are basically fried balls of risotto, are a fabulous find. We had some superb arancinas filled with eggplant, mozzarella, and parma ham. We also had lovely cheese (how could this not be great) and fantastic seafood. My favorite was an octopus and potato salad with like half a bottle of olive oil on it. So. Freaking. Good. Italians do a good desert too, and we ate an ethereal pistachio granitas (basically a super fancy super good slushy).

More Catacombs!

On our last day in Palermo we decided to trek out to the Capuchin Catacombs… and it was spooky as hell. Most catacombs house skeletons and various relics, but the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo house nearly 1,300 mummified corpses in addition to 7,000 run of the mill skeletons. Interred between 1599 and 1920, the mummies are hung from the walls wearing their own clothing and holding a placard of their name and date of death. I didn’t make it past the first room, but Jeff went all the way in. There is a really sad and spooky children’s section, and even a little girl named Rosalia Lombardo who was actually taxidermied. I don’t like this one bit.

The official story says that in the 1500s a handful of Capuchin monks died in an epidemic and were interred in a cave near the monastery. After some period of time, the remaining monks returned to collect the skeletons of their deceased brethren only to find that the bodies had been completely preserved. Miracle of miracles!!! To celebrate, the monks decided to mummify all subsequent monks and various members of the community as well. The unofficial story, however, is that someone learned embalming techniques from some Peruvians in the late 1500’s and decided to go crazy with their new found skill. Why let your embalming techniques go to waste?

Thus ended our (seemingly eternal) time in Italy. After a week in Palermo, we took a really weirdly designed train to Catania for an early morning flight to Malta. Farewell Italy!

The Little Island of Lipari

After a long and vaguely barfy 7-hour ferry ride from Naples we reach the island of Lipari, just off the northern coast of Sicily.

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Here’s where Lipari is… Yeah, I didn’t know either.

The B&B Salvatore in Lipari was the first thing that we booked for the trip, so it felt like we had arrived at the destination that made our adventure official. We reflected on all the things we didn’t know when we left home, all the weird mistakes we’ve made and all the lessons we’ve learned. Arriving in Lipari also made it abundantly clear that our past-selves had adorably delusional visions of the comfort level we’d have during our travels. The B&B Salvatore is luxurious and beautiful – exponentially nicer than anywhere else we’ve stayed. At this point in the trip we’ve lost toenails, subsisted on peanut butter for days, and had diarrhea in a floor toilet at an Uzbek train station (no photos of that, sadly). It’s cute that we thought to book a lovely well-appointed B&B, and we got to spend the week in comfort thanks to the plans laid by our past selves.

Well, not total comfort. Despite our lovely surroundings and the expected ease of an ‘Italian holiday’, we actually found Lipari to be quite a challenge. There’s no transportation, many hills, and a surprising lack of English speakers. Of all the far-flung and obscure places we’ve been on this trip, I think that Lipari was the hardest place to be a foreign tourist. I say foreign because there are actually tons of tourists on Lipari, they’re just all Italian and don’t speak English. There is shockingly little information online about local sites and day trips, so we kind of just wandered helplessly for a few days. By day 3 it became clear that the way to figure stuff out is to just chat with people on the street or in cafes (in Italian, or course). We could tell people were swapping notes on where they’d been and what to do, but aside from some basic places names we couldn’t figure what they were saying. How to navigate the bus system, visit beaches, and see stuff – you know, normal travel stuff – remained quite a mystery for us during our time in Lipari.

Taking pity on us, our B&B owner Marcello helped us arrange a boat excursion with his friend Barney, which turned out to be our favorite day in Lipari. Barney has a small boat that he somehow crams 14 people on for day trips that circumnavigate the island. He knows every nook and cranny of Lipari’s coast, and we visited some really fantastic isolated swimming and snorkeling spots. Because the island is volcanic there are also some incredible caves to explore. I’ve never swam through caves before and it was spooky and magical at the same time. Barney knew of one cave in particular where the afternoon light streams in at just the right angle to reflect upward – illuminating everything with a shocking bright blue glow.

Predictably, we didn’t understand a thing during the boat trip, except for 10 minutes where everyone seemed to be enumerating in Italian all of the characters of the Flintstones. “Eeee Weeelma…. Eee Dinooo… Eee BamBam.” I can only assume that this was a reference to Barney’s name, but it did please us to understand a handful of words coming out of people’s mouths. For the most part, though, we had no way to communicate and basically spent the day like giant children, imitating everyone else’s actions. If people jumped in the water, we jumped in the water; when people came back to the boat, we came back to the boat (frantically). We didn’t get left behind so I guess it was a successful day.

After thoroughly exploring the island on Barney’s boat, Jeff and I gave ourselves permission to do absolutely nothing for the rest of our time in Lipari, and frankly this is when we finally got into the sweet spot of this place. We just hung out at our awesome B&B, ate the fabulous breakfasts that Marcello’s wife Paola prepared each morning, and looked at the sea. Perhaps it was our fault for trying to ‘do stuff’ in paradise, but once we gave up that notion Lipari was quite delightful. Nonetheless I don’t think it would kill anyone to have a usable public bus service for the island… but I’ll leave it at that.

Arriving at the place where our trip planning began felt significant, and despite the unexpected challenges we were sad to leave. We took another slightly-less-barfy ferry from Lipari to Palermo, where our Italian adventures continued.

I love Naples! I love Naples!

After a brisk 4 days in Rome we headed south to the Campania region of Italy. Most people visiting Campania head directly to the Amalfi coast and its scenic towns like Sorrento and Positano. We had other plans and we set off for Naples. Naples has a serious – and completely undeserved – image problem. Everyone told us that Naples is dangerous, dirty, and full of criminals and pickpockets who will stab you. The Internet is full of negative press with articles like ‘Why no one wants to travel to Naples’.

I sincerely do not understand this image of Naples. Sure, there’s a bit of garbage and riff-raff , but Naples is a fabulous urban environment– far exceeding expectations and definitely in my top 5 cities of the trip. It is a young, frenetic, and passionate city, with hustler types zooming around on mopeds 3-passengers deep. Neapolitans eat most meals out and the street food is exquisite, accessible, and really damn cheap. Lovely espresso and sweets can be found on every street corner and we haven’t eaten so well for so cheap since Asia. The walls of alley ways are embedded with gaudy Virgin Madonna shrines reminiscent of Buddhist ancestor shrines. Actually, Naples reminds me a lot of Ho Chi Minh City so perhaps it’s not surprising that we loved it.

Neapolitan Street Food

We did a street food tour our first evening in Naples and it was the perfect way to get the lay of the land. We ate bread-crumb biscuits, mozzarella di bufala, and the best margarita pizza at Pizzeria dal Presidente (evidently Bill Clinton ate there – I’m skeptical). For sweets we ate Naples’s signature pastry, the sfogliatella, which is basically a crunchy puff pastry stuffed with orange scented ricotta cheese. My favorite vendor was an old lady who makes a famous fizzy lemonade. She’s been making it at the same stall on the same marble countertop for 77 years. Think about that – she started making lemonades during WWII and she’s still at it. The marble countertop has a deep pit in the middle from the 77-years worth of fizzy lemonades that have flowed over it. Wow.

The best part of our food tour, however, was the company – specifically a mesmerizing family from the British midlands we nicknamed ‘The Roonies’. They were characters. Ma Roonie (age approx. 35-45) was dressed like a demented pixie at Burning Man – pink hot pants, pink hair, a belly shirt, and copious glitter. Pa Roonie (age approx. 45) was a Cockney-plumber-meathead; an interesting hybrid, really, and an unexpected spousal choice for a pixie. There were two lil’ Roonies, (age approx. 8 and 11), sporting extremely tight t-shirts, serious hiking boots, and fanny packs with water bottles that Ma and Pa compulsively filled with Liptons iced tea.

The lil’ Roonies were miniature Karl Pilkingtons, and their solemn demeanor and thick Cockney accents made everything they said an unintentional punch line. In addition to working through golf ball sized suckers, their goal for the evening seemed to be to ‘nab’ various cutleries at each food stop. “Just nabbed it,” each lil’ Roonie would announce as he displayed a new acquisition and stashed it in his fanny pack. Ma Roonie continually mentioned some mosaics she’d seen depicting a man with ‘two willies’ and Pa Roonie seemed on the verge of a ‘roid rage collapse at any minute. Another woman on the tour was a proper stiff-upper lip Brit who just happened to be from the same crappy town in the midlands as the Roonies. When she found this out her face crumpled and I really thought Ma Roonie was going to hug her. Thanks for the great evening, Roonies!!! We’ll never forget you.

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I was only able to get one surreptitious photo of the Roonies: the two lil’ Roonies are pictured left, Ma Roonie center, and Pa Roonie’s arm on the far right. I miss them.
The San Gennaro and San Gaudioso Catacombs

Naples was hot so it was fortuitous that there are some cool underground attractions (pun intended). Naples has several ancient catacomb systems, the best preserved of which are San Gennaro and San Gaudioso. Originally built around 200 AD, the catacombs house lovely Greek era frescos and some of the oldest Christian paintings in the world. In the late Middle Ages the catacombs were buried in a huge mudslide and the complexes were mostly forgotten (except for a period of super creepy revival at San Gaudioso during the 1700s, see below).

The San Gennaro complex is fairly tame and felt like a lovely old church (albeit underground). The many passages split off to beautifully decorated private tombs and the central chapel houses the remains of Naples’ first patron saint, St. Agrippinus. The San Gaudioso catacomb, however, is very macabre and catacomb-y. Unlike the San Gennaro complex, San Gaudioso was partially uncovered in the 1700s and was briefly used between 1740 and 1763. It became fashionable for wealthy Neapolitans to commission bizarre funerary displays where the deceased’s head was displayed above a fresco painted skeleton body. The frescos depict outfits and accessories to denote profession for social standing and are often framed with glib quotes like, “Today it was my turn, tomorrow it will be yours.” It’s creepy.

The modern-day revival and restoration of the catacombs is a wonderful story of grassroots activism. A group of childhood friends who grew up near the catacombs took it upon themselves to preserve this part of Naples’ heritage, and in 2006 founded a non-profit agency called Cooperativa La Paranza to fund their work. The whole thing – excavation, preservation, and the tourist infrastructure – is done without government funding and provides employment and investment for the surrounding neighborhood. This is a very poor area of Naples and the pride that everyone takes in this project is very uplifting.

Underground Roman Market

We also visited an underground Roman era agora, or marketplace. Like the catacombs, this Roman marketplace was buried in a mudslide and abandoned. Medieval churches were built on top of the site and the structures were forgotten for centuries. The vast complex of ancient streets was discovered after WWII when construction workers noticed that parts of the floor echoed as if they were hollow. Excavation began in 1990 and now the site is accessible through the basement of a quiet church. It’s incredible that you can descend down a narrow staircase and be inside a perfectly preserved Roman market. The function of various shops and stalls is still evident, and our guide took us to a laundry facility, a bakery, and the fish cleaning area – pretty amazing.

Pompeii

To complete our ancient cities experience we made a day trip from Naples to the archeological site at Pompeii for yet another hot and dusty day of Roman ruins. We’re definitely a bit ‘Roman-ruin’-ed out by this point (seriously, how did they build soooo much), but Pompeii was objectively very cool. Covered in a thick ash after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, Pompeii is one of the best-preserved Roman cities in the world. The city still bears the hallmarks of being an ancient trading city and the streets show grooves from wheels of trader’s wagons. The city was full of commerce, and shops, temples, restaurants, and of course the famous brothels line the many streets. Visiting such a well-preserved site really lets you imagine the scale and feel of what it was like to walk the ancient streets in its heyday, and despite Roman-overload it was pretty interesting.

See how long this blog post is? I could write about Naples all day. We saw and ate so many great things during our time there – I really love Naples. After 5 days in the frenetic city, we took a ferry to our next destination, the quiet island of Lipari off the coast of Sicily.

Rome (Yay!) and the Vatican (Meh.)

Rome in August?!?! What were we thinking? As reality set in we were both a little tempted to make another crowd avoidant gypsy detour. Alas, you can’t stay with the gypsies forever and somehow we pulled ourselves together for the hardest challenge of our travel boot camp to date. It was super hot, it was super crowded, and it was super expensive, but luckily the fabulousness of Rome was all worth it. The Vatican, not so much… but we’ll get to that.

Rome

Rome was very cool – a bit of a ‘Disneyland’ version of itself but it was inarguably cool. We stayed in Rome’s central Monte neighborhood and it was a perfect hub for exploring the city on foot. This was a necessity since the public transportation in Rome is S-H-I-T – incredibly it’s even worse than Athens. Monte is full of restaurants, cafes, and cute little shops that all seemed to be closed for the summer. Even though August is the high season for tourism, many businesses are closed because Italians want to take off the whole month (duh, who doesn’t). They’ll just post a little note on the door saying, “Closed August 6th – 30th”. It’s super irritating if you’ve, say, schlepped across town for a pizzeria or nail salon and find out its closed for the month. I simultaneously curse and envy this trait of Italian culture.

My new favorite thing is ‘skip-the-line’ tours and we booked one to visit the major sites of ancient Rome. By this point in the trip, we’ve seen more Roman ruins than I can count in places like Lebanon, Cyprus, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Crete, and even a potential (albeit unproven) Roman fortress in Uzbekistan. The Romans left their mark all over the world and it was quite exciting to finally see the Empire’s HQ with our own eyes.

Our first stop in Ancient Rome was the Colosseum – the indisputable crown jewel of Rome. Built between 72 and 80 AD, the massive structure was constructed by 20,000 slaves to host public shows like gladiator fights and executions (what fun!). The intact-ness of the structure is amazing and you can easily imagine just how impressive this place was when it was full of 50,000+ Roman citizens. I keep wondering how many people over the millennia have had some experience with is building – Romans who saw a show, medieval travelers who glimpsed it from the road, and modern day tourists who climb all over it. The Colosseum has to be the (or one of the) most visited and observed buildings in the history of the world, and that’s pretty cool.

Next we walked toward the Roman Forum, the center of political discourse and decision making in the Roman Empire. It’s fascinating to think that the ideas and activities of the forum grew out of the unassuming Pnyx in Athens. Surrounding the Forum are the Temple of Vesta (home of the Vestal Virgins), the incredibly understated tomb of Julius Caesar, and like 1,000 other monuments that would be the highlight of any other city. All of these monuments and ruins are crowded together densely and its utterly amazing to consider how much of our current culture, values, and ideals sprung from discussions and debates held in this geographically small place.

Our final stop was the Pantheon, a Roman temple built in 27 AD and dedicated to the worship of all gods, past and present. At the beginning of the 7th century the pagan temple was converted to a Christian basilica. It’s a little weird, actually, but I guess it’s pretty. Maybe we just had a case of monument-fatigue by this point in our day… it happens.

The Vatican

We also visited the Vatican on a ‘skip-the-line’, and thank god we did or I would have murdered someone waiting in the hours-long line. As part of visiting the Vatican, you ‘see’ the highlights of the Vatican museum (i.e. be physically near to said highlights behind 500 people), visit the Basilica of St. Peter, get ‘shushed’ in the Sistine Chapel, and walk the Vatican grounds. The Vatican sucked – categorically sucked. We were contractually obliged as ‘tourists-in-Rome’ to visit the Vatican but I wouldn’t do it again. Luckily for me now I don’t have to.

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Is this the Pope’s car??? This was my favorite part of the Vatican.

I don’t have much to say about the art in the Vatican museum, not only because I didn’t really ‘see’ anything but because the only memory I was able to commit to long term storage was of being hot and herded like a cat. We saw some cool maps, some gaudy tapestries, and lots of stuff made out of marble. This is the extent of my memory.

The highlight of the Vatican were the futile attempts by Vatican staff to maintain a reverent and peaceful atmosphere in the Sistine chapel. The chapel rules are no photos and no speaking, but of course barbarian tourists don’t heed. The mucho-serious guards dodge and weave through the crowds swatting iPhones out of the hands of photo-eager Chinese grannies. Every 3 minutes or so, an ominous ‘voice of god’ comes out of some hidden speakers to shush the crowd. “SILENCE!!! SHUSH!!!!!” Jeff and I used to go to a schtik-y bar in the NYC with a monastic theme and a strict code of silence – any chatty-pants would be aggressively shushed by the bartenders. The Sistine chapel is kind of like that bar, but a lot less fun.

After like 3 hours in the Vatican, we were shuffled toward the gates and thus ended our visit to the Pope’s house. Check and mark. Tourist obligations fulfilled.

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We survived! Never forget. Never again.

Hot, tired, and a teeny bit traumatized by the Italian tourism industrial complex, Jeff and I took a high-speed train south from Rome to our next stop – Naples.

The Magical Island of Crete – Ierapetra

After a week of rural charm we headed to Crete’s southern coast for a week of beach time in the town of Ierapetra. Ierapetra is a sleepy city and our AirBnb host was amazed that three Americans had ventured to her town. “All the way here? From America?” Well it’s not like we swam or anything but point well taken. While the northern Mediterranean side of Crete has a robustly developed tourist infrastructure, southern Crete’s Libyan sea is fairly remote and craggily. We ran into a few Russians, a handful of Italians, and that was pretty much it. There aren’t any big resorts or package deals around and that is precisely the draw. The southern coast is beautifully austere and the slow pace of life feels like a time capsule of Greek island life over the centuries.

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One of, like, 50 churches in Monestiraki.

Ierapetra’s claim to fame is that Napoleon sought safe harbor here in 1798 on his way to Egypt. The house where he supposedly stayed is the flimsiest tourist site ever and the less said about this the better. Beyond the lameness of Napoleon’s house, Ierapetra is a pleasant and quiet little town with a sleepy waterfront strip (they loved us there), some calm beaches for locals, and very little to do except relax.

Our Airbnb host was one of a (very) small contingent of Ierapetra-hipsters and she had fabulous recommendations for food and shopping around the southern coast. We made food pilgrimages to several little villages around Ierapetra to eat at tavernas she had recommended and every suggestion was spot on. Our favorites were a seafood place called ‘Schedia’ in Eparchiaki Odos (kitties!!!) and a glorious taverna called ‘Kapilio’ in the tiny village of Monesteraki at the base of the impressive Ha Gorge (they had kitties too!!!). Both places were very cool, very old school, and very, very Cretan. At Kapilio we spent the evening chatting with one of the owners who along with her husband (clearly foodies), had taken over the 50-year old taverna a few years back. They make only a few dishes each night but everything they do is delicious.

We visited a handful of nearby beaches around Ierapetra, but far and away our favorite was Myrtos. According to Wikipedia, Myrtos was ‘discovered’ by the hippies in the 70’s, and today is an extremely cute beach town with just the right amount of infrastructure and development. There are about a dozen restaurants and shops, a nicely groomed beach, and a handful of holiday rental apartments. Our favorite beach spot was right outside of a cafe called Ca’Nova, and the cafe provides free sun beds to patrons. The place is owned by an Italian family and the homemade pasta was heaven. Grannie spends her days making raviolis in the sun and generously gave me a lesson on how to maintain ravioli integrity (pinch the seams harder than you’d think, she says).

We’ve never actually done a holiday that involved so much beach time and I think I finally understand why the Euros are so beach obsessed. Usually gearing up to go to the beach feels like a production but if you do it for multiple days in a row it becomes an easy routine. There is a nice rhythm to setting up a beach camp, lounging with cappuccinos and frappes, swimming occasionally, and basically spending the entire day reading in the shade. I think that all three of us took a liking to it.

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This is Via Beach – the most crowded beach in the south. It’s still pretty damn charming and relaxing.

Like our rural time in Apostoli, our time on the southern coast was a great way to see a side of quiet Crete. There are no ‘must see’ sights and you need some time to soak in the atmosphere, but it was such a treat for us at this point in the trip. After a lazy week, we bid adieu to my sister Callie and prepared for our expedition to the inner most ring of the tourism inferno – Rome in August.

The Magical Island of Crete – Apostoli

I continually confuse Cyprus and Crete, and how could I not? They’re both Greek islands of nearly identical size and shape, they have remarkably similar geography, and they both start with ‘C’. Honestly, the biggest difference between the two islands is that Cypriots are adamant about how staunchly Greek they are and Cretans are adamant about how staunchly non-Greek they are. Fine, I’ll honor whatever heritage Cyprus and Crete want to claim since both islands are so freaking magical and delicious, but really…. come on, they are pretty similar.

Apostoli

Jeff and I visited Crete a few years ago and were delighted to have two-weeks on this trip to visit some of Crete’s lesser explored nooks and crannies. Basically every part of Crete that isn’t a beach is a lesser explored nook and cranny so we had a lot of ground to cover. We spent our first Cretan week right in the center of the island in the wee mountain village of Apostoli, which is the archetypical ideal of a wee mountain village. Apostoli has about 400 people, one taverna, one super old church, and a lot of cats. I never elucidated why but every day at 6:50 PM spooky and slightly insane sounding singing came out of the church, and went on for exactly 20 minutes. That was a highlight. The village streets were darling and steep, and we were able to pick figs and lemons for our brekky on evening walks. Yeah, it was ridiculous.

It can be hard to truly get a sense for life in a rural place since people tend to be old and reserved, but our wonderful AirBnb hosts went above and beyond in showing us life in their village. Manolis and Nopi (and their two sweet sons) took over the family farm about 5 years ago and now grow everything organically. They produce excellent honey, olive oil, fresh produce, eggs, and even offer orgone treatments (you might need to read about orgone here…). In the evenings the family spends time on their terrace chatting with their guests and taking in the incredible evening sky with their telescope (we saw a partial lunar eclipse!).

Adventures Around the Island

From Apostoli we made a day trip to the beachside town of Agios Nicholas, where we visited a working olive oil farm and took a cooking class. The cooking class was irrationally fun for me and we learned how to make the typical Cretan dishes of skioufihta, an egg-less pasta, and dakos, basically a Cretan bruschetta with ungodly amounts of olive oil. I may be over reaching here but I feel like the cooking instructor was impressed with my pasta rolling skills. I take such things very seriously. We also discovered a new cheese which has changed my life – fresh mizithra. In the US we only have aged mizithra (which Cretans call anthotiro), but in Crete they have a creamy, soft, slightly sweet mizithra that you can eat with honey or fruit, and it is heavenly. Sadly, this cheese pretty much only exists on Crete so we had to eat enough in two weeks to last a lifetime (which I nearly succeeded at).

We also made a visit to Rethymnon, a Venetian walled city that we had stayed in during our last visit. Ostensibly we made the trip to show the Rethymnon to my sister Callie and her friend Sabah, but really it was just an excuse for a pilgrimage to a restaurant called Prima Plora. Several years ago we had an immensely memorable meal at Prima Plora and both Jeff and I were hell-bend on recreating it. This type of nostalgic food pilgrimage is an almost certain recipe for disappointment, but we were delighted to find that Prima Plora is just as exquisite as we remember. So, so good!!!

The Palace of Knossos

Since this was our second trip to Crete, we decided it was time to finally see the biggest (non-beach) tourist attraction in Crete – the Palace of Knossos. Built between 1700 ad 1400 BC, the palace was the main cultural and religious center for Minoan Crete. Legend has it that Knossos was the home of the mythical King Minos, and the site of the labyrinth built to contain the Minotaur. This is a lot of myth for any archeological site to stand up to, but I have to say honestly that the Palace of Knossos sucked. Big time. The entrance fee was expensive (even with an ill-gotten student discount) and the site was just plain weird. There was pretty much no description of the Minoan culture or functional relevance of the palace, and the frescos have been fancifully restored, to put it politely. I’ve since read a bit about the site’s archeologist, Sir Arthur Evans, and his 1900 ‘restoration’ of the temple has been described as “archaeological delinquency”. I agree. It was bad.

Last hurrah for Apostoli

Every few nights our Airbnb hosts Manolis and Nopi would come around and tell us about a festival in a nearby village with food and musical performances. This, on paper, sounds awesome, until you find out that said festivals begin at 10:00 or 10:30 PM and most people stay until 2:00 AM. How Greek farmers can survive on such a schedule is one of the greatest mysteries of our travels. We made it to exactly one such festival (after a disco nap) in the nearby village of Kastamonitsa. There was free food, drink, and the place was packed since the performer was a famous lyra player in in Crete. Amazingly it wasn’t just young people at these late-night festivals but whole families – babies, kids, super old people – who all stayed out until the wee hours of the morning. After putting in a good effort, Jeff and I finally headed home at 11:30. Manolis stayed until 2:00 AM. Wow.

After a thoroughly delightful stay in rural Crete, we headed to our next destination – the town of Ierapetra on Crete’s southern coast on the Libyan Sea.