Author Archives: Andrew Stein

Malta and Gozo’s ancient history

For our first couple days on the island, we rent a small car to hop around to all of the scattered sites.  Driving a manual car on the wrong side of the road made for a fun challenge for both Lindsey and me.  I wouldn’t say I’m great at driving with a stick-shift on the right side of the road; however, learning to shift gears with my left hand was a small fraction of what felt so weird.  In addition to using manual transmission, driving from the wrong side of the car, winding down narrow cobble-stone streets, taking wide right turns and small left ones, driving on and off of packed ferries, and there being no real highways given the island is so small all added to the adventure.  

Enough about the driving; where did we drive to?  Mostly we put on our figurative archeologists’ green, pocket-fill vests and round hats and go explore the many megalithic temples.  Luckily, we don’t have to pronounce the names here, but among the temples we visit include Hagar Qin, Mnadra, Ggantija, Tarxien, Ta’Hagrat, and Skorba. These temples (not sure they were actually temples vs. homes) were first erected in the 4th and 3rd millennium BC.  As a couple helpful references, the pyramids are from the 3rd millennium BC and Stonehenge was closer to the 2nd millennium BC.

One unfortunate thing we learn is that many of these ruins were uncovered at a time when archeology was more of a hobby than a profession.  And as a result, the meticulous records of how things were found are often not included as well as the method of uncovering treasured ruins was likely not as careful.  That all said, it is wild to imagine a culture so many years ago so advanced to be building these perfectly cut stone structures that included idols, statues and carvings on walls.

Christmas in Malta

One of the many reasons that Malta became a destination for us this winter is how they celebrate the holidays.  Many Christmas traditions in Malta happen outside the home.  Not only does everyone attend a Midnight Christmas Mass, but many then follow it up with an early breakfast at a local restaurant.  Christmas lunch is then also frequently enjoyed out.  We pass by many a restaurant full of tables reorganized to accommodate large families cheerfully clinking glasses.

Not to be outdone by the Maltese, after a Christmas Eve feast at our Xara Palace Hotel, we pop into three Masses on Christmas Eve, most of which are not in English so we soak up the atmosphere more than the sermons.  The last Mass we enter right at the end to admire another beautifully decorated church, and we time it just perfectly to be handed a honey ring (a traditional Maltese pastry).  A couple of the locals spot us and give us the thumbs up.

After Mass, we haven’t quite worked up another appetite, but it’s time for Early Christmas breakfast.  This is actually a thing in Malta.  We enjoy orange juice, tea, mulled wine, and a full buffet breakfast around 2am in the morning surrounded by families young and old.  And finally, because we’re still not fully stuffed, Christmas lunch the following day has a very similar appeal.  Lots of families feasting out!

Along with the specific Christmas Eve and Christmas Day traditions, Malta and Gozo are fully decorated for the occasion.  The streets are lit up, Christmas trees a plenty, and cribs with manger scenes.  On the nearby island of Gozo, we even swing through a real-life Bethlehem complete with animals, bakers, a well, boat rides, and a manger scene with a baby Jesus.  Malta knows how to do Christmas.

Mdina

After a 36-hour layover in Barcelona, during which we mainly try to fight our jetlag, our babymoon gets started in the walled city of Mdina, Malta.  Mdina is beyond medieval – in fact, it was Malta’s capital city back into Antiquity.  Starting with the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, then the Phoenicians as early as the 8th century BC, then eventually being home to the Romans, after which the Byzantine empire took a turn, and more recently (1500’s AD) the Order of Saint John. Finally, after having to put up with the French and the British some, Mdina and Malta are independent today. Everyone wanted a piece of Malta given its ideal position smack in the middle of the Mediterranean (just south of Sicily).  And as a result, Mdina, which sits high near the middle of Malta, saw many famous civilizations and empires come through.

We spend our first three nights on the island sleeping within the walls of this fortified city, with its population of about 300 (I’m not missing a “K” on that 300).  Once the tourists leave around 5pm, the city clears out and our small hotel, the Xara Palace, is the only hotel within its walls.  We wander the curved, quiet streets ducking into churches, cafes and medieval homes.  The quiet of the city is both magical and eerie. The only sound is that of the wind and the night time brings with it an incandescent glow. It feels like all roads lead back to St John’s Cathedral so we’re never too worried about getting lost and instead always try to go down the alley that we haven’t already seen. Mdina is clean, quiet, peaceful, and full of history.

In and around Banff

We spend the first and last couple days of our visit to the Canadian Rockies exploring Banff.  We feel lucky that our first day ends up being the last day of straight months of rain.  Everyone we pass for the rest of the trip are in such high spirits that summer has finally arrived.  That said, our first, rainy day is spent exploring nearby towns, window shopping, brewery touring, ice cream eating, and taking a short hike up Tunnel Mountain when the weather breaks.

Banff is a little oasis nestled between tremendous peaks. Along with beautiful views, strenuous hikes, manicured gardens and river sport options a plenty, there’s also surprisingly good food, historic hotels and cute little coffee shops.  We feel right at home.  In many ways, it feels reminiscent of early weekends we spent exploring small towns in New England.

If you happen to find yourself in Banff, we loved our meals at Eden and Sky Bistro.

Cycling the parkways

The Icefields Parkway, a.k.a. Highway 93, is heralded as a top drive of a lifetime.  National Geographic rates it as one of the top drives in the world.  

This road is well-traveled, especially when nearing a magnificent view point like Lake Louise or Moraine.  Getting to experience each lake late at night, then early in the morning, and getting to approach each vista by bicycle is now the only way we could ever imagine doing it.  All vistas require a climb, and biking that climb makes the view all the more beautiful.  We crest a hill, we pause, we photograph, we snack (a lot!), we hydrate, and we marvel.  The longest day we ride is 110 km, the shortest is 50 km, and the climbing never stops.

We bike from hotel to hotel, and the views from our rooms don’t disappoint either.

Canadian lakes

The lakes of the Canadian Rockies come in every shade from light teal to dark blue, they’re all mirrors to their surrounding mountain peaks, and they’re around every corner of the parkway.  The science of why these lakes do what they do doesn’t ruin any of the magic.  The glacier melt, which feeds the lakes, carries something called glacier silt or rock flour.  This sunlight-reflecting silt comes from the glacier grinding along the rock underneath.  And not only does this silt reflect the sun, it also stays suspended in the water giving the lakes that spectacular uniform, full look that reflects anything it can.  From Lake Moraine to Lake Louise to Bow Lake to so many others that we passed each day on our bicycles, the surprise of their color never gets old.   

Banff’s Bow Valley Parkway

Like a fairytale complete with tree-lined rolling hills and train whistles on the regular, the highway is our thoroughfare as we bike through Banff’s famous Bow Valley Parkway.  The snow-capped mountains surrounding us tower towards blue skies, and the color of the river running next to us is that same surreal teal that fills the lakes.  We own the uphills, we relish the downhills, there are no flats.  There’s no better way to explore the Canadian Rockies.

Bear spray

“If you want, we can lend you some bear spray” is a helpful tip we receive upon asking for hike suggestions around Banff.  

Lindsey doesn’t flinch, so I’m not sure whether I should be making it a bigger deal or not.  I look at her for a cue, and then realize.  “Hun, I don’t think they’re warning us about mosquito bites, I think they’re protecting us from grizzly and black bears.”  

For someone who I know is so afraid of bats, I can’t imagine such comfort with the idea of crossing a giant bear on the trail.

“Oh! Oh wow! Ya – I didn’t get that at all.”  Lindsey continues to think through some of the implications.  “If we see one, we spray it?  Do we run, act big, roll over?”  Okay – maybe she didn’t say the roll over part, but that’s for dramatic effect in the retellings of the story.

“If you encounter a bear, the first thing you should do is…”  There’s a short pause, but long enough for someone else behind the counter to chime in.  At the same time, we hear, “run” and “definitely don’t run”.  It’s conflicting advice, but at least now we’re armed with the most intense pepper spray (a.k.a. bear spray) we’ve ever had.

The level of fear from everyone we ask about bears is cautious but not scared, and so over a couple days, we also try to develop a similar attitude.

During the orientation of our bike tour, we’re presented with some more information on bear safety.  Stay 100 meters away if you see a bear, unless it’s right on the side of the road, and then just don’t stop.  And if a bear starts chasing you, hope you’re not the slowest cyclist – bears are fast!

On day 2 of our ride through the Canadian Rockies, we pass a black bear cub within feet of the side of the road.  A couple cars are stopped to witness this adorable cub without mama bear anywhere in sight, or so we think.  Per our directions, we keep moving.  Definitely gets our heart rates up, but it’s all part of the adventure!

Cats

There was a spotting last night of leopard tracks on the western bank of the Khwai river not far from where the hyena den sits.  Definitely wasn’t a lion.  Lions tracks are larger and almost always travel in groups – there was only tracks from one animal here.  Wasn’t a cheetah either.  They usually show off an indentation from their sharp claws.  Same goes for hyenas and wild dogs.  If there are no claw prints, wasn’t them.  Thus, our mission if we choose to accept it is to track down the leopard. (Note: the only thing we’ll be shooting are photographs.)

First thing, the tracks are now stale, but luckily there was a light rain over night wiping clean our etch-a-sketch of earth.  The temperature is still cool at 5:45am in the morning, and as we close in on the location of the tracks, we find fresh ones pointing due east in the direction of the rising sun.

We cut the engine and listen and wait and listen some more.  Birds are just waking up, the wind rustles through the leaves, the hippo laughs at a corny joke just beside the river.  Then we hear it, an alarm call.  Many of the birds sound an alarm upon spotting a predator, but one that we’ve become attuned to is that of the Starling.  We scan the branches looking for the culprit of the sound.  We find the bird and strain our eyes to see where it’s looking.

We test the boundaries of the vehicle hoping not to get stuck and drive around looking in branches and under trees for the amazingly camouflaged feline.  Although the truck sounds like thunder, we keep our voices to a whisper.  Our heartbeats are louder than our words as we scan.  We circle the patch of bushes once, twice, three times, and cut the engine again to listen.  The alarm is gone and so is our leopard.

The magic of safari and the adrenaline that follows is that it’s not a zoo.  There are no guarantees what we’ll see, when we’ll see, how we’ll see.  The only certainty of the day is its uncertainty.  And so we continue, and as we go, we rest to enjoy the hippos, impala, giraffes, zebras and elephants. And every so often, we hear what might be an alarm call, stop the car, listen, hunt, and repeat.  And every time we do, I’ve got my camera locked and loaded waiting for the perfect moment.

After feeling so close for most of the morning, we finally catch our break.  The alarming Starling looks deep into the brush, and we try to see what it’s seeing.  I’d love to take credit, but our guide eyes a spotted tail.  We drive around to see if we can get a better look, and eventually we do!  There’s a blue-eyed leopard carefully watching us through the cloak of leaves all around.

And then, when we’re already satisfied, the leopard starts to move.  It has spotted a baby impala not too far.  It’s steps are so slow, so methodical, so quiet.  We wait and don’t even whisper to each other not wanting to disrupt the moment.  After much maneuvering by both parties, the impala comes within striking distance of the leopard.  The leopard, also being too young, misses its opportunity, wagging its tail in disappointment.  But what a moment.  We’d have loved to see more action, but the suspense and beauty of the slow motion chase is still a thrill.

Whenever Lindsey or I sneeze, we’d also hint that our cat allergies were giving us another clue, but that one was much less reliable than the tracks and the birds.  But whenever a real clue would show itself, we’d become detectives and enjoy every moment of the hunt.  Each exotic find equally exciting.  We got to see lions and cubs up close, we came across several leopards, and were even lucky to stumble upon the elusive serval cat.