Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Maltese Falcon

So I admit, before moving to London, I had no idea where Malta was. Other than the 1941 film noir, The Maltese Falcon, I had never heard of this pint-sized sunny Mediterranean country. In fact the film only has  a loose connection to Malta other than the name of the film was  taken from the jewel encrusted Maltese Falcon, originally a gift to Charles V of Spain from the Knight Templars of Malta in 1539, but was stolen by pirates whilst sailing through the Mediterranean and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery. The central plot of the story follows a San Francisco-based detective, Sam Spades, and his dealings with three private clients who are in search for the Golden Falcon. Despite the name, not a single scene took place in Malta, at least, not that I was aware of. 

Just a quick 30 minute flight from Sicily and some 150 miles from Tunis, Malta is a microcosm of Mediterranean and North African cultures. Even the Maltese language is Semitic sharing many similarities to Arabic, but written in the Latin alphabet and borrowing terms such as 'Grazie' from the Sicilian-Italian language. But as Malta was a former British colony, English is widely spoken and the ubiquitous red post box dot the streetscape in Malta. Honestly, I didn't know what to expect from Malta other than glorious sunshine and gentle sea breeze. 

We made ourselves comfortable at the Hilton in St. Julian located on Porotomaso waterfront overlooking the harbour for three nights. The hotel not only has three pools, a massive conference centre in which the annual Nestle sales conference was taking place, but also walking distance to numerous restaurants and bars, including the infamous nightclubs (read: trashy) of Paceville. If you're not a fan of Soho clubs, most likely you won't like Paceville.

We spent most of our waking hours lounging by the pool and stocking up on 3 months worth of vitamin D. When we weren't glued to our sunloungers, Keenan and I also went to explore the stamp-sized capital city of Valletta. Exuding loads of characters, this UNESCO world heritage site is full of charm with cafes spilling out to the main drag of Triq ir-Repubblika and Triq il-Merkanti. Whilst you can take the bus to the capital city, I highly recommend taking the ferry back to St. Julian, if only for the view of the harbour. We spent some time meandering around the backstreets of Valletta before having lunch of regional specialties of rabbit ragu and Maltese sausage, all washed down with local Maltese wine. 

To celebrate our 4th wedding anniversary, Keenan and I went for dinner in the lovely medieval town of Mdina, the old capital of Malta. A beautifully preserved town is simply delightful for an evening stroll through the silent maze-like alleyways. There are some impressive architectural gems to marvel at.

That evening we enjoyed a delicious dinner at a restaurant aptly named Medina, tucked away in a little courtyard. The atmosphere and covered courtyard remained me a lot of our favorite restaurant in Aleppo, the Sissi House, which sadly has probably been destroyed from the war in Syria. The wait staff at Medina was friendly and extremely attentive; the portions were huge by European standard. We lingered around for dessert and coffee before taking a 15 minute cab ride back to St. Julians for last night in Malta. Had we had an extra day, we would have loved to do a day-trip to the its sister island of Gozo for some hiking and snorkeling, but alas, we had to get to London. 

It was a great week away from the hustle of London and a much needed break from work. Thankfully, we soaked up enough vitamin D  to last until our next sun-trip to the southeast Asian island of Borneo in December. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

"Leave the Gun; Take the Cannoli" Ciao from Taormina

Keenan and I just returned from a week long holiday in Sicily and Malta. Why Sicily? Well to start, Keenan is a huge movie buff. From time to time he would insist on some "alone with with Ingmar Bergman" watching Wild Strawberries, or he would bore me to tears with a slow-moving Akira Kurosawa film (sorry, just not a fan). However, there is one movie I would be more than glad to watch over and over again.  The Godfather I and II.   


The scenes of the Sicilian town of Corleone in The Godfather was actually filmed in Forza d'Agro and Savoca, Sicily, two rustic little towns just 20 minutes north of the resort town of Taormina where we based ourselves. Favourite films aside, the real reason for coming to Sicily was to celebrate our 4th wedding anniversary (and 4th Londoniversary) and for a bit of sunshine under the hot southern Mediterranean sun. Sunshine glorious sunshine!

After circling around a dodgy neighborhood near Catania airport for nearly an hour, we finally made it to Taormina. Between the narrow roads and crazy traffic, let me remind you driving in southern Italy is no easy feat! 

The beautiful town of Taormina, situated 200 metres above sea level on Monte Tauro, boast some lovely views of ocean and post-card perfect views of Mt. Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe. Active indeed, we can see smoke spewing creating a little microclimate around the top of the volcano. The whole town and coastline reminds me a lot of the Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast with its vistas, scenic drives, rocky beaches, and crystal-clear waters. 

By day, the town is heaving with cruise-ship daytrippers, all making a beeline to the famous  Greek theatre. By night, Taormina is filled with locals and couples enjoying an alfresco drink on the main square overlooking the Ionian Sea. If we weren't strolling down the main shopping street Corso Umberto, eating our weight in pizza, or devouring our nth cannoli, then the rest of time was spent on the beaches of Taormina. The water was surprisingly warm even in October. I spent some time practicing my swim as we're planning on getting our PADI open water dive certification in Borneo in December.  Note the beaches are not sandy in Taormina, think rocks like the beaches of Nice, France. For sandy beaches, you'll need to head 5 miles towards Giardini Naxos, however, the town lacks the charm and beauty of Taormina. 

Besides taking in the view and sipping local Sicilian wine, we enjoyed each others company and reflected upon the last four years. I can't believe it's been four years! Then it was off to Malta, a little island nation and former British colony, 60 miles off the Italian coast. 

And one of my favorite quotes from The Godfather: "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse." Ciao from Sicily.