Saturday, October 27, 2007

An Entire Week in 800 Words or Less

First things first: we've all been taking a lot of photos. Being a total Web2.0 tag slut, I've been methodically uploading to flickr, tagging (and geotagging), and writing descriptions for all my photos. So you can get a multimedia blog post of sorts via my flickr photostream.

C & M have both also been taking a metric ton of photos, and I'll freely admit that if I saw one of them taking a photo of something, I'd not bother to also photograph it. So you'll have to watch their photostreams as well: C and M.

While we were in Malta, we started a page in M's tiny notebook so we could at least try to recall the highlights of each day. I'll hit some of them, and leave the rest to my compatriots:

Monday: We had dinner at Metro, which was listed in the Slow Food guide to Italy, a copy of which was given to C by her friend RS. Everything we had was pretty-damn-great (there was a slice of lardo on the antipasti plate that made us all want to cry, both tears of joy and fear for our arteries), but we declared C the Queen of Dinner, for her one-two punch of tuna tartare and some sort of fish ravioli, both of which were among the best things any of us had ever eaten, anywhere. The memory of those two dishes is so strong, in fact, that I just had to ask CR what I had. He tells me it was the Fusilli alla Calabrese, which I now remember as being very tasty.

Maybe we were just full from the primi, but as is often the case in the US, the secondi didn't outshine our earlier courses.

Tuesday: Took the bus to Siracusa, where we saw people playing Kayak Water Polo:

Kayak Water Polo, Ortygia, Siracusa, Sicily

There was an issue with our hotel (the Gutkowski), namely, that there had been a problem with M's credit card & they hadn't bothered to try to reach her to tell her that we didn't have reservations. No matter: they hooked us up with the Hotel Posta, which had two rooms available. Biggest beds of the trip thus far, too. Here's the view out M's & my window:

Hotel Posta, Siracusa, Sicily

We had dinner at another place we found in the Slow Food guide (thanks, RS!): La Gazza Ladra. We were a little preoccupied with getting done in time to make it to the puppet show, so we didn't sit around & enjoy things as Slowly as we should have. I'm going to leave it to M to blog about the food, as she declared some of the marinated vegetables to be the best she'd ever eaten. And C can blog about the puppet show, as she was quite taken by the pupi.

Wednesday: We wandered around Siracusa and took in the various highlights, including most notably the Teatro Greco:

Teatro Greco, Siracusa, Sicily

We'd managed, after some difficulty, to procure bus tickets to Pozzallo, which is the southern coastal town where we'd catch the ferry to Malta. We timed things out such that we'd need to grab a cab at the archaeological park in order to make it back to the hotel, pick up our bags, and then make it to the bus station.

We got the cab, for what seemed like the absurdly high/gougey price of 60 Euro. At this point we were on a tight timeline & committed, so we had to suck it up. We made it to the hotel for our bags with no problem, but then the driver took off in the opposite direction from Via Catania, the location of the bus station. When CR asked what he was doing, the driver said "VIA Catania? I thought you wanted me to take you to to CATANIA," which at least explained the 60 Euro price.

(You can see from the photos that it was threatening rain, and I guess he figured that an afternoon spent driving people the 60 miles to Catania was a safer bet than hanging around trying to pick up tourists at an outdoor archaeological park in the rain.)

Once we figured this all out, he said (in essence) "why take the bus, I'll take you to Pozzallo for the same 60 Euros." Since our brains don't think in Euros (that'd be around $85), we were free to say "sure!"

It turned out to be a brilliant stroke of luck. Our driver, Francesco, had been driving taxis and tour buses all over Sicily for 20 years (he appeared to be in his 60s). We were a little leery when he offered to take us on a tour of Noto, midway between Siracusa and Pozzallo, for another 20 Euro, but since we had several hours to kill before our 9:30 ferry, we agreed. It was so totally worth it:

Church of San Francesco & Convento del Santismo Salvatore, Noto, Sicily

We saw a ton of crazy Baroque architecture, *and* we got to hear all about Francesco's life, and his kids, and all sorts of tidbits about Noto and Sicily in general. Plus he took us to a restaurant in Noto, the Barocco, where I had Spaghetti Alla Barocco, which was their take on mixed shellfish in a peppery red sauce. The mussels were so fresh and so good that I'll probably never order them in the USA again.

By now you're thinking "what a bunch of tourist suckers, falling for the whole 'pay me 80 Euros and I'll show you around' routine from a taxi driver." And it's true that Noto is in all the guide books. It's also true that it hadn't made it onto our schedule, which was awkward and dictated by the 2:30 bus to Pozzallo and the 9:30 ferry from Pozzallo. It was worth a few Euro to us just to have something to do in the afternoon besides sitting around Pozzallo, which is a ghost town after September, apparently.

Plus Francesco was truly awesome. Seriously. He parked the cab in Noto and then walked us around the Baroque center of town, telling us the story of each building.

Sooner or later we had to continue on to Pozzallo, where we still had a couple of hours to kill before the ferry. We tried unsuccessfully to find something to eat other than gelato, and then we sat and played Scrabble for a couple of hours, as a light rain began to fall.

The ferry was fast, relatively uneventful, and kinda fun. The guesthouse driver apparently quit waiting at the terminal before the boat had even arrived, so we had to hitch a ride on a tourist van (by now it was midnight), but even that was pretty painless. I'm going to leave it to M, C & CR to blog about the ancient walled city of Mdina, where we were to stay for the next 3 nights.

Thursday: I really wanted to get out of the wall-to-wall built landscape that had dominated our trip so far (when an island has been inhabited by building-builders for 1000 years, things tend to get built up), so I suggested a trip to the northern Maltese island of Gozo to see Dwejra, a section of the coast with a ton of crazy rock formations:

Azure Window, Dwejra, Gozo, Malta

We took one of the Malta busses to the ferry terminal, which took a while. Adding in the time spent on the ferry, and then the interminable wait for lunch at an ill-chosen restaurant, and we spent over 2 hours to make the 15-mile trip. So M suggested grabbing a cab for the remaining 6 miles to Dwejra.

Given our earlier taxi experience, none of us were all that surprised when our driver (Tony) stopped right in the middle of the road, pulled out a map ("The biggest map of Gozo!") and offered to take us on a guided tour of the entire island for only 40 Maltese lira (which is actually an assload of money, around $130). We were torn, in part because we hadn't studied up on Gozo, so having someone who knew their way around would be handy. In part because we'd had such a great experience with Francesco. And in part because 40 ML was highway robbery.

So M talked him down to 30 ML, and we set off again to Dwejra, where our semi-unspoken plan was to see how it went there, and then decide whether to continue.

Dwejra was amazing, and after we'd taken the boat tour and done some walking around, we had decidedly mixed feelings when we realized that Tony wasn't where we'd left him. We hadn't even paid him the 9 ML that had been on the meter for the drive from the ferry to Dwejra.

Just as we were about to walk up these centuries-old steps cut into the rock up to San Lawrenz, Tony pulled up, so we all piled back into the cab and then he took us on a whirlwind trek around the rest of Gozo, during which he would pull over periodically for us to take photos. The rest of the time he ranted nonstop about how every village on Gozo has a school, and about how everything's going well now that the Nationalist Party is in power, because the Labor party will "line you up and push you off a cliff."

He also spoke with fondness about eating tinned American cheese and butter in the 50s. All in all, despite his right-wing nuttiness and the occasional racist remark (and given the fact that the Turks kidnapped almost the entire population of Gozo into slavery in the 16th century, can you fault a man for holding a grudge?), it was actually quite entertaining.

Plus he took us to Xerri's Grotto, which is a classic limestone cave under someone's house in a little village in the middle of the island, accessed via an insanely tight spiral staircase in the middle of their foyer:

Spiral Staircase, Xerri's Grotto, Xagħra, Gozo, Malta

I'll leave it to M to blog about her increasing frustration with the Malta bus service, and C to blog about her disappointment over the lack of mint ice cream at the trattoria back in Mdina where we had dinner.

Friday: We made the bus trek to Valleta to check out the prehistoric Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. As with so many other ancient artifacts in this part of the world, it was discovered under somebody's house, which is more or less where it remains. It's essentially a huge series of burial chambers hewn out of the solid rock by people using elk antlers or something, around about 3500 BC.

Did some other general Valleta sightseeing, ate the classic traditional Maltese food-in-pastry (every culture has one!), the pastizza. Semi-flaky pastry pouch filled, in my case, with spinach and green olives. I got two because they were about $.80 apiece, but I could only eat one and a half of them.

After we got back to Mdina, we finally managed to make it into the walled city during the day, to check out the cathedral, and, somewhat unexpectedly, the classic car show in the piazza immediately in front of the cathedral:

Classic Car Concours, Pjazza San Pawl, Mdina, Malta

St. Paul's Cathedral, Mdina, Malta

For dinner I had the classic Maltese dish, rabbit. Unlike the rabbit I've had in the states, this tasted like chicken.

Saturday: Got up at 4:00 a.m. to catch the 5:00 a.m. ferry to Catania. Disaster narrowly averted when M noticed that the driver was heading north instead of east. He was about to drive us to the Gozo ferry at the opposite end of the island from where we needed to be. He admitted that he hadn't the foggiest idea why we'd want to go to Gozo at 5:00 a.m.

Apparently the hotel owner, who'd arranged the ride, was the source of this confusion. We concluded that the poor bastard, who seems to run the hotel without much assistance from anyone else, has spent his entire time on Malta (he's originally South African) in his hotel, and has never actually made it out to see the rest of Malta.

I won't describe the horror that was the 4-hour ferry ride back to Catania. Someone else can take that on, if they dare. There was one highlight, however: burning up our last 5 Maltese Lire on a copy of Greek Vogue in the gift shop!

Now we're lying around the apartment trying to recuperate.