Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Places not to miss in Malta

It never takes more than an hour to get anywhere in Malta, even with the public transport. This is why with just 8 days I was able to see many different things, on different parts of the island. Here's my personal top five of places not to miss in this charming  and fascinating Mediterranean country.

A street in Valletta

Sunday, 29 January 2017

A taste of the new world: the colonial heritage of Tenerife

Tenerife, the biggest of  the Canary islands, is famous for all-inclusive resorts where tourists get drunk and enjoy the year-round sunshine, experiencing nothing of the island. Locals insist that the real Tenerife is elsewhere, and especially in the north of the island, where the charming towns and the incredible landscapes will leave you agape.

Tenerife is rich in culture and unique in its diversity. A volcanic island off the coast of southern Morocco, it is home to a biodiversity that is comparable to that of Gal├ípagos. To the tourist it offers a variety of sceneries, from the volcanic lunar landscapes of Parque del Teide to the lush forests of the Anaga mountains, or the golden beaches with sand imported from the Sahara. Because of the microclimates of the island, Tenerife is green in the north and arid in the south.
The Anaga Mountains, on the north-eastern tip of Tenerife

Monday, 16 January 2017

Hvar: island of the senses

Hvar has everything I expected from a Croatian island: it's covered in pine forests, lavender fields and olive groves, it has beautiful secluded pebble beaches and a gorgeous historical centre. Moreover, the ferry from Split took me there in less than a couple of hours.
It has picturesque marble-paved streets full of flowers and trellis, and its main square looks out onto the sea, with countless smaller islands ready to be explored. Woods grow just behind the square, offering a perfect postcard picture. Hvar is one of the most visited islands in Dalmatia, so it's rather busy in the summer months, but it still shows its charm in the backstreets and quiet corners.

The main square in Hvar

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Pai, backpacker's heaven or hell?

The small town of Pai, in north-western Thailand, is very popular among backpackers who visit Thailand. Lured by their ravishing tales, I decided to give it a go.

There is nothing special about Pai itself. There are no amazing temples, the food is mediocre and as in the infamous Khao San Road in Bangkok, the place lost its authenticity long ago. There are more guesthouses, souvenir shops and trekking agencies than private houses, not to mention more Western food that in any other parts of northern Thailand. On top of the that, the 4-hour minibus drive from Chiang Mai is a nightmare of 700 turns where you'd better not look out of the window.

Relaxing in Pai
Yet tourists keep flocking to Pai for the laid-back atmosphere: hippies, yoga enthusiasts and 20-somethings devoted to smoke weed, but also some hiking enthusiasts decide to visit this relatively remote corner of Thailand close to the border with Burma. Oh, and tons of Chinese tourists, to the point that some of the accommodation especially caters for them.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Touching the sky: the monasteries of Meteora

Meteora has a place in every tourist brochure of mainland Greece, and for a reason. These huge monolithic pillars and the surrounding hills, located in the region of Thessaly in central Greece, were definitely worth the long hours I spent on the buses to reach them (3 hours from Thessaloniki and 6+ onwards to Delphi).

The landscape looks like that of an old-fashioned videogame, with a character jumping on top of a mushroom. On the background there are mountains that I kept on thinking they couldn't exist in the real world. The atmosphere is surreal, magnetic, almost spiritual. Needless to say, it is one of  my favourite places in Greece.

View of Meteora

Sunday, 9 October 2016

The exotic in Europe: Malta

If you drew a line from Gibraltar until the other end of the Mediterranean Sea, on the northern coast of Syria, the middle point would fall very close to Malta. With a Semitic language but firmly within Europe, besieged by the Turks but never conquered by them, this small island country can be considered a dividing point between Europe and North Africa, not to mention between the Western and Eastern Mediterranean.

A downhill street in Valletta
For the European visitor Malta is exotic and yet familiar. The architecture resembles that of North Africa, with cream-coloured houses and flat roofs, except that there are Catholic churches everywhere. Imagine a mix of cultures that rarely speak together: Italian, Arabic and a sprinkle of British. A British phone booth with on the background  a palm tree, or a Sicilian cannolo sold next to a fish and chips restaurant. Not to mention the typical and incredibly photogenic Maltese balcony, a sort of southern European version of the British bow-window.

A phone booth in Marsaxlokk
Invaded by many countries and once home to the multinational Order of the Knights of Saint John, Malta is used to mixing cultures and languages in a natural way. In Malta there is a lot of history, ranging from incredibly-fascinating prehistoric temples to opulent Baroque churches, but also natural beauty and a rich food culture. The island is small but it is ideal for a relaxing holiday, where you can throw in a little bit of everything, from beach days to museums and even a little bit of hiking.

The  Azure Window in Gozo

You never need more than one hour to reach any place on the island, even if you use the excellent public buses. This allows you to base yourself in one place and then explore with liberty. The tiny capital of Valletta is a treasure hunt for cultural sites, from Caravaggio paintings to the knight's armoury. The ancient capital of Mdina, nicknamed the silent city, is full of picturesque corners, while the smaller island of Gozo - easily reachable by ferry - is  famous for its natural beauty and more relaxed atmosphere.

A church in Gozo

Malta is an ideal destination for a varied holiday, and moreover it is easily reached with a Ryanair flight, it has euro and everybody speaks English. In spite of the proximity to Italy, I discovered an extremely rich culture and a history that I almost completely ignored. Did you know, for example, that Saint Paul got shipwrecked in Malta and personally started the evangelisation of this island? Or that the Order of Saint John, founded at the time of the crusades, established itself in Malta and successfully managed to stop the Turkish invasion of the island in what is called the Great Siege of Malta?

A peaceful corner of Mdina, the old capital

Sunday, 25 September 2016

The Tiger Cave temple in Krabi

The Andaman coast of Thailand is famous for its beaches and karst formations, not to mention for paradise islands like Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta. The dilemma then is what to do after a few lazy days spent by the beach, when you feel the urgency to saviour a little bit of Thai culture, almost invisible in the touristic heavens of this area. 
Unfortunately, the Andaman coast is not a particularly good place for temple-hopping, because a part of the population is Muslim. There is, nonetheless, a Buddhist temple that is really worth visiting, a mere 8 km from Krabi Town (the main town in the area and a transport hub): the Tiger Cave Temple (Wat Tham Suea).

Top of the shrine of Tiger Cave Temple
I reached it by negotiating a tuk tuk ride from my accommodation in Krabi Town, but I guess you could go there from Ao Nang as well. The reason for the name Tiger Cave Temple is uncertain: some say that a huge tiger was seen roaming inside a cave where they also found tiger paw prints. The most astonishing and fascinating part of Wat Tham Suea is the shrine on top of a staircase of 1,237 steps. It is quite a challenge to reach the top and I must warn you: it is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Some of the steps are quite high and uneven, and because of the heat some people give up even before they are half-way through.

Made it to the top

I was really sweaty and panting, but I finally reached the top. I think it was one of the best experiences I had in southern Thailand. At the top there is a big golden Buddha statue, but the real reason to get there is the view. You can see all the karst formations in the area, and all of Krabi at a 360° angle. Wat Tham Suea is not an ancient temple, as it was built in the 1970s, but it has turned into a place for meditation and retreat for Buddhist monks.

View from top of Tiger Cave Temple

At the bottom there are monkeys who love to play with fruit and any food that they might find. As usual, a temple in Thailand is made by different pagodas and stupas, so it's worth exploring a little bit more the area. For me, it is always fascinating to see different religious practices. Usually these temples are tourist attractions, but they are also used by the local population, so you get the chance to see the local offerings. Sometimes local people offer flowers or rice, but it's interesting to see offerings of money or candy bars. Apparently, Buddha likes chocolate  too!

A pagoda of the Tiger Cave Temple
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