Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Game One

I couldn't let the day go by without posting my pick for this year's World Series. Not only do I think the Texas Rangers will win, I think they'll win in five. (I'm tempted to say they'll win in four, but I'll hedge.) Though I'm obviously unhappy that my Rockies and Red Sox didn't make an appearance this year, I'm thrilled for the Rangers. I love seeing a team that's never been to the Series make it all the way.

I'm also cheering for the Rangers this year because they're the longtime favorite team of my writing buddy Emily March. Emily is a pen name of author Geralyn Dawson--if you're a fan of western romances or romantic suspense, search out her books written as Geralyn Dawson. They're phenomenal.

Geralyn's first book as Emily March, Angel's Rest, hits the stands in February. I've had an early look, and it's definitely worth pre-ordering.  (And if you like Colorado settings, as I do, then you're in for a real treat.)

In the meantime, Go Rangers!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Berber Tea in Tunisia

I'm not usually in the habit of getting up before dawn, but being on a ship with a sea view balcony beckoning seems to pull me out of bed earlier than usual. Again, I made it outside long before the ship made it into port. Glad I did. I spent about twenty minutes watching these two fishermen search for a place to drop their giant, rolled net. I think the three of us (and, presumably, the captain of the cruise ship) were the only ones awake.

Soon, we were pulling into port in Tunis. In typical Middle Eastern style, one of the first things you see (check the side of the building) is a giant picture of the country's president standing in front of the flag. When the DH and I visited Egypt a few years ago, we played a, "How Many Hosni Mubaraks Can You Count?" game as we went through downtown Cairo. I think we'd have been successful playing a similar game in Tunis.

After hopping off the ship, we boarded a bus for a guided tour. I'm generally a go-it-alone type, but figured that with the limited time we had in Tunis, and the limited research I'd managed ahead of time, a tour was in order. Our first stop was the historic Punic Ports. Today, it simply looks like a nice place to live (lots of gorgeous homes in this neighborhood), but I can imagine Hannibal leaving from here on one of his expeditions.

After walking along the waterfront, we made our way to the ruins of the ancient city of Carthage. I'd read that the ruins aren't that great; therefore, I was surprised by how much was actually still standing. You can climb down and walk through it all, then on to the waterfront to imagine how life must have been when this was a flourishing city.

I spent a good hour-plus, heat and all, exploring the ruins. Believe it or not, I actually had a picture taken at this stop!

From Carthage, we re-boarded the bus and went to explore an ancient ampitheatre, then went on to the St. Louis Cathedral to take in the view of the entire city of Tunis and its waterfront before heading to the touristy (but gorgeous) blue-and-white village of Sidi Bou Said. In Sidi, we opted to skip the shopping--which was where most tourists stopped--to wander the streets and admire the architecture. Wouldn't you love to live in a house with a front door like this one?

The entire village is filled with elaborate blue doors and windows adorned with fancy grillework. After walking through the park and peeking through alleyways at a few more buildings, we went to a Berber house that is open to visitors who want to take a tour and have some tea. While it was fairly touristy, I liked having the opportunity to see the layout and tilework of a Berber house. Despite the fact it was nearly a hundred degrees outside (it was about 2PM by this time), I couldn't resist trying the steaming hot Berber tea.

It was tasty, but given the heat, it wasn't hard to turn down the second cup! After enjoying the tea, I climbed up to the roof to take in the view across Sidi Bou Said, back toward Tunis. I stayed up there quite awhile, but only took a couple photos. I was too busy enjoying myself!

From there, we walked back to the bus. I didn't go into any of the shops, but did snap a photo of the outside of one, since I loved the colors of all the plates on display:

And I snapped a final photo of a gorgeous gate on one of the homes:

On the way back, our tour guide talked about the Tunisian system of government, the way its educational system works, and the role of women in Tunisia (more women than men in Tunisia pursue higher education...who knew?) I found it all fascinating.

My last photo of the day was taken just before sunset, looking back toward Tunis as the ship left the harbor. To the right of this island (with its phenomenal cliffs) was a huge wind farm. Our tour guide had mentioned that Tunis draws a lot of its power from the wind, so it was a nice way to finish the day to see the wind farm on departure.

If I'm fortunate enough to visit Tunisia again, I'll do it on my own. Tunis seemed pretty safe and easy to navigate, despite a lot of the overhyped warnings I'd read online before visiting. Most Tunisians speak at least some English and French, which means I'd be fine if I ever got lost--though sometimes, getting lost is when I have the most fun! If I were to go for more than a day, I'd try to arrange for one of the many tours out of town that go to the Roman ruins south of Tunis. I've heard that Dougga, in particular, is worth the drive.

Isn't it great when you leave a place with a head full of ideas for things you'll do next time you visit? In my mind, that's the mark of a successful trip!

Next stop: Italy!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Malta Foot, Cab, Bus, and Boat

If someone told me I could use their Malta apartment for six months, I'd be all over it. There is a lot to see and do on the island (and the neighboring islands of Gozo and Comino, let alone on Sicily, which is only a 90-minute ferry ride away.) Unfortunately, I only had a day on Malta, but I made the most of it.

If you ever arrive in Malta by cruise ship, chances are that it'll be at sunrise. Get your tail out of bed. It's worth it! I watched the sun rise over the island of Comino, then kicked back with a cup of coffee on my verandah to watch the limestone walls of Valletta drift by as we made our way into port. Isn't it gorgeous?

The DH and I were the first people off the ship once it docked (yippee!) I haggled for a cab with a rather scary-looking sailor type, but once we settled on a rate--and I was wondering what I'd gotten us into--he turned us over to another cabbie, a fantastic guy who was happy to answer all our questions about the island and its history. At our request, he took us across the island to Malta's famous Blue Grotto. This was the big reason we wanted to be first off the ship--we wanted to be the first to the Blue Grotto in the morning, so we could see it before it was full of tourists. When it's early on a Monday morning, as it was when we arrived, the boat dock looks like this:

Just a few old guys swimming in the ocean, or fishing from rock outcroppings. Quiet and serene.

We took the first boat out, so we had the grotto all to ourselves. I would've loved to have anchored here for the day. The water, especially in the caves, was so clean and blue you could see all the way to the bottom, and the rock formations were astounding:

The weather was perfect, and it was warm enough that you didn't even need a jacket. Pure bliss.

After we returned to the dock--just as the first tourist bus was arriving--we found our cabbie (he was watching for us) and made our way back to the city of Valletta. Along the way, the cabbie told us about the festivals taking place in various towns, about his family, and about Malta's school system. It sounds boring, but it was unbelievably interesting. (We loved our cabbie!)

We spent the rest of the day strolling through the city of Valletta. First, we visited St. John's Co-Cathedral. Check out the ceiling here--it gives the Sistine Chapel a run for its money:

We wandered through the shopping area for awhile. The main streets were full of people by this time, so eventually we grabbed a spot to sit for lunch and did some first-rate people watching:

I left my husband at the lunch table so I could sneak in a bit of shopping. I snagged a great pair of silver filigree earrings in one of the shops on this street. I try not to shop too much when I travel, since I prefer to keep my packing to a minimum, but this is one of those times I wished I'd bought more. LOVE the new earrings.

After lunch, we made our way to the main traffic circle in town to hop on a bus bound for the city of Paola. I'd done some research on Malta several months before we visited, and decided I absolutely had to visit the ─Žal-Saflieni Hypogeum, a prehistoric underground temple/necropolis. I'd reserved tickets online about two months before our trip (they only allow ten people an hour inside to help preserve the site), and was thrilled to be able to visit. I couldn't take any photos inside--you leave your cameras with security at the door--but you can find some great ones at Heritage Malta website. Here's my lone photo, of the outside door:

It's in the middle of a city block--the Hypogeum was discovered accidentally during construction in Paola in the late nineteenth century--so you'd never suspect from the outside what lies underneath. If you ever have the opportunity to visit Malta, I highly recommend stopping here. You can make your reservations at the Heritage Malta site (which has a lot of info on all of Malta's historic sites and museums.) Just give yourself plenty of time to get there. Our bus driver had no idea where it was, and dropped us off at the wrong stop. Turned out fine, since it gave us the chance to see a bit of Paola tourists never see.

Not far from the Hypogeum, we noticed a beautiful cathedral, so we popped in here, too. We were the only non-Maltese anywhere around:

After touring the Hypogeum, we hopped the bus back to Valletta. The bus in Malta is an experience in itself. The Maltese pride themselves on their antique busses. This is the one we took back to Valletta (and no, there is no air conditioning, but if you put the window down, you'll be fine!)

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking through Valletta's botanical gardens, enjoying the shade and taking in the views across the city and harbor.

Finally, we made the long hike downhill to the harbor and our cruise ship. Perfect, perfect day. I'd go back to Malta in a heartbeat--friendly people, lots to do, great scenery, and an amazing history make this one of my favorite spots in Europe.

Next up: Tunisia!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Barcelona and Montserrat

After recovering from the SATA(n) flight--which required serious stretching, a hot shower, and a lot of sleep--we spent two fantastic days in Barcelona, including a quickie half-day side trip to Montserrat.

Montserrat is a gorgeous Benedictine abbey set in the side of a mountain. To get there, you take a train from Barcelona, then a cable car up the mountain. Check out the view looking up from the cable car...see the monastery on the upper right? It blends in with the mountain. (Tip: if you still can't see it, click on the photo to enlarge it. Then click your Back button to return to the blog.)

Once you're up there, the abbey itself is gorgeous:

And the view across the valley is spectacular. It's also not for those with a fear of heights. Some of the viewing points have very sharp drop-offs.

There are a lot of hiking trails around the area, but we bypassed those in order to get back to Barcelona and see La Sagrada Familia before it closed for the day.

I've been fortunate enough to visit dozens of cathedrals in Europe. A lot of them look alike after awhile; La Sagrada Familia stands out for two reasons. First, Gaudi's funky architecture makes the exterior of the cathedral unlike any other.

Second, the cathedral is still under construction. Since most cathedrals were built in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, having the opportunity to go inside one that's only partially finished is interesting for the architecture and design geeks amongst us. Right now, they're in the midst of installing the stained glass windows. A huge display in the front of the cathedral shows the process, how the glass is selected, and gives information on the artists completing the work. The stone floors are also being installed. I loved being able to see both works in progress.

After La Sagrada Familia, we enjoyed a fantastic dinner near the top of Las Ramblas on Placa Catalunya, where our hotel was located, then did some people watching before heading to Montjuic and the Magic Fountain for even more people watching. The Magic Fountain is similar to the fountains at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas: a giant water show set to music. I liked the fountain in Barcelona better than the Bellagio, simply for the atmosphere.

The next day, we took a long walk along Las Ramblas, which is the main street of Barcelona's downtown. Largely pedestrian, it's full of shops and sights, and therefore, tourists. I snapped an early-morning photo of this street performer applying his makeup before the tourists were out and about:

A couple of Gaudi-designed houses are off Las Ramblas, as is one of my favorite sites in Barcelona, La Boqueria, a giant marketplace. I ate breakfast there each day (sooo good!) and had lunch there, too. Whenever I arrive home from a trip, I discover that my camera is jammed with more pictures of the markets than anything else, and this trip was no exception. Check out all the fruits at one stall and the nearby juice bar.

I chatted for a little while with a friendly woman selling eggs, even though she didn't speak much English and my Catalan is nonexistent:

And though there were a lot of fish stalls, I had to take a photo of this one. It contained the highest percentage of seafood I couldn't identify!

Seriously, click on the picture to see it larger and see how many items you can identify. If you know what they are, post to the comments!

(EDIT: The stuff in this case may not be seafood at all--note the heads on the right--but it was in the market near the seafood stalls, which is why I thought it could be seafood. But if someone says, "You idiot, those are goat parts!" I will not argue the point.)

There's lots to see in Barcelona away from Las Ramblas, as well. We spent most of one day walking around the Gothic Quarter, going through the old churches. Many of them were empty, so walking through them felt surreal. The streets themselves are beautiful, too, with arches like this:

And street musicians like this guy, who was phenomenal. Not only was he a talented guitarist, his voice was beautiful. I left a tip in his guitar case, and so did a few other tourists:

We got our dose of art by walking through the Picasso Museum--a must-see for anyone who likes Picasso--then headed a few blocks away to the Chocolate Museum. Yep, Barcelona has a museum dedicated to all things chocolate! There are displays about how chocolate is made, about the history of chocolate production, and about all the different types of chocolate. There are also displays of chocolate art. For instance, this depiction of a bullfight, made entirely out of chocolate:

And this recreation of the house from the Pixar movie UP:

Sadly, the photos don't do the chocolate justice. In person, the detail is amazing. It also made me very, very hungry. Fortunately, at the end of the tour, we stopped to have chocolate and coffee from the museum's coffee bar.

Eventually, we made our way to the waterfront where Christopher Columbus is mistakenly pointing away from the New World (oops.)

After one last meal on land--because who can resist eating in Barcelona?--we boarded our cruise ship to head to our next stop...Malta!

Monday, October 4, 2010

On The Road Again...

I've been quiet lately, but I swear I have a good excuse. The best, in fact! As anyone who's spent thirty seconds perusing my website knows, I love to travel. Experiencing other places, learning about different people and their cultures, and seeing natural wonders firsthand keeps my brain nimble. It helps me appreciate all that I have, and gives me insight into the lives of others. While all this is important to writers, I think it's a great thing for all human beings to do.

For the next few days, I'll be posting photos from my most recent trip, a cruise of the Med.

First, however, a word of advice: If you are booking travel from the US to Europe, avoid SATA Airlines at all costs. I thought I was booking TAP (Air Portugal) and ended up on SATA, which is apparently a partner airline. I am not a big person, and I barely--I mean BARELY--fit in the seat, and this was for a flight from Boston to Lisbon. My poor husband, who's 6'4", really didn't fit. His knees were jammed into the back of the seat in front of him, and his feet were dangling in the air. It was awful. And yes, we did select seats before leaving Boston...the seat assignments weren't honored. Ditto on the way home. The way home was worse, in fact, because we had to fly from Lisbon to the Azores, get off the plane, go through THREE security checks, and then board the exact same plane to fly on to Boston. Horrendous. A direct quote from one of the gate attendants in Boston: "Honey, if you want on board you're going to have to shove." I kid you not. I should've known the flight would be from hell the minute I heard that. Of course, the very worst part of this is that we got NO frequent flyer miles for the trip. While TAP is a partner with United, and we booked thinking we were getting miles on United, SATA has no such exchange. If TAP puts you on a SATA flight, you're outta luck.

So word to the wise, people: SATA Airlines is short for SATAN.

BUT...after that, everything was fantastic! I've always been more into spending my money on experiences than on things, so if you can save your pennies and forgo that nifty J. Crew peacoat you've been eyeing or the latest XBox 360 game, I say this is the way to spend your cash.

Day One: Lisbon, Portugal!

The Med cruise left from Barcelona, Spain. However, being the little smarty-pants that I am, I discovered that I could book a 12-hour layover in Lisbon en route to Barcelona for the same cost as simply flying straight to Barcelona from Boston. (Now, that flight didn't work out so well, but the IDEA was a good one!) The DH and I hit the ground in Lisbon and headed straight for a friendly taxi driver, who took us to the Monument of the Discoveries, which honors Portugal's seafaring traditions. The view from the top is spectacular--you can see all of Lisbon, including the beautiful Jeronimos Monastery, which is just across the street.

Here's the Discoveries Monument:

And the view of Jeronimos Monastery from the top:

Of course, after climbing the Monument, we had to go to the Monastery. Saw the crypt of Vasco De Gama, walked around the chapel, and then entered the Cloisters. The Cloisters are a must-see if you're in Lisbon. Very peaceful and beautiful:

Afterward, we walked down the street to the famous Pasteis de Belem bakery. Their specialty pastry custards are to die for. I'm not even a custard fan and I ate more than one! Travel guru Rick Steves has raved about this place for years, so I was afraid it'd be overrun with tourists, but not so. I'd say it was about 30% tourists from the monastery and 70% locals when I visited. The line to buy pastry-to-go went down the block, but moved very quickly. If you don't have time to stop in and eat as I did, be sure you budget enough time to get through the pick-up line.

On a midafternoon espresso and pastry high, we left the bakery and hopped the streetcar to the town's main square, Praca de Comercio. After walking around the pedestrian area, we rode a full loop on one of Lisbon's old trolley cars. They're a lot like the cars in San Francisco, and I think they're even more fun. I leaned out the window to take this shot:

There were narrower streets than this on the route, but I didn't want to risk losing a limb (or my head) to take a photo. Finally, we walked around the castle area, took a few shots of Lisbon's rooftops, then walked down the narrow, cobblestoned alleyways back to the bottom of the hill below the castle.

Cue the rooftop shot:

Once we made our way back to the waterfront, we flagged a cab for the ride back to the airport. Lo and behold...out of the thousands of cabs in Lisbon, we got the same driver who'd taken us to the Monument of the Discoveries that morning. Good luck, I think, because the TAP Portugal flight from Lisbon to Barcelona was quick, comfortable, and relaxing. (AKA: Not from SATA(N).)

Next up, Montserrat and Barcelona, Spain!

(However, first a warning: There will not be many shots of Yours Truly in this travelogue. I married a wonderful guy, but he is a very, very bad photographer. As in, when I give him the camera, I end up with a picture of my shoes. Or half my face. Therefore, I long ago gave up trying to have my picture taken by the DH. Most of the photos you'll see of me were taken by random strangers I grabbed on the street. Thank you, strangers!)