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Gothic Prague – City of a Hundred Spires

Having heard for a long time that Prague is the most Gothic city in Europe, last year I finally decided to ignore the nagging feeling that I would be disappointed, and took the plunge.

To give you an idea of the architectural richness of Prague, although this European hub is known as the ‘City of a Hundred Spires’, it was actually estimated that the city enjoyed 500 towers and spires until a few years ago. So, once there, be prepared to look up!

First day exploring the City of a Hundred Spires!

The capital of the Czech Republic is a mish-mash of medieval Gothic architecture, Romanesque basilicas, Renaissance interiors and Baroque sculptures and statues. The ‘old town’, or historical centre of Prague, is a real treasure trove, straight out of a sultry ‘underworld’ movie – no wonder it has been included in the Unesco list of World Heritage sites for more than 25 years.

Even if your trip to Prague is limited to just a few days, there are some experiences that are simply unmissable. The heart of the old town is certainly Prague Castle which, unlike the name suggests, is not just one castle but a complex of historical buildings, monuments and sites around a large square. It’s like a city within a city, comprising three courtyards, the lush royal palace with its famous Powder Tower, the magnificent St Vitus Cathedral and St George’s Convent, which houses a number of historical artistic pieces, not to mention a number of other palaces, such as the Lobkowicz Palace, that contain artistic exhibitions and private collections.

Saint Vitus Cathedral

If you haven’t realized yet, a couple of hours are certainly not enough to visit. I dedicated a whole day to the exploration of this landmark. Be prepared to walk, gawp and crane your neck. I urge anyone who visits to wear comfortable shoes. And don’t worry, in between bouts of climbing stairs and taking photos of the amazing views and architectural wonders, one can always take a break and relax in the beautiful Royal Garden, the Belvedere or the South Gardens.

Be warned, however. The Castle complex is on top of a hill, which means that in order to get there you have to walk up many steps or up a long, steep road. On the plus side though, this means that there are some very beautiful panoramic views.

Personally, my favorite part of the Palace complex is the so-called ‘Golden Lane’, where a conglomeration of small, medieval shops and tiny houses belonging to noted historical figures are to be found, literally on top of each other. These tiny vintage nooks offer not only medieval and post-war exhibitions, but also a number of diminutive shops selling hand-made unique items.

Views of Prague Castle Square

Huts proclaiming to have been ‘the fortune-teller’s home’, or ‘the herbalist’s shop’ show you a slice of life during the 16th century, when the cramped street was most active. And, of course, don’t forget to take a look at the Prague Astronomical Clock, which can easily be found on the southern wall of the Old Town Hall in the square.

Although some areas of the complex are free, such as the gardens, most of the buildings are not. I would suggest purchasing a block ticket which would allow you to roam wherever you like.

Magical Charles Bridge!

Apart from the historic fulcrum of the city, perhaps the most iconic symbol of Prague is the Charles Bridge. Constructed more than 250 years ago, this enormous arching bridge is portrayed in many movies. The stone bridge, which crosses the Vltava River, is adorned by a surprising number of baroque statues portraying saints and knights. I crossed the bridge both by day and by night – two two very distinct memorable experiences.

This is another unique thing about Prague – at night it looks very different and magical. So, if you visit, make sure to stroll around the cobbled, winding streets at night too. I adventurously attended a four-hour walking ghost tour and, though my feet were falling off by the end of it, I would do it again if I had to revisit.

There is so much to see in Prague apart from the Old Town. If you take the underground or a bus and venture a few streets away, you will discover the Jewish Quarter, which is well worth the effort. Located between the Old Town square and the Vltava river, the Jewish Quarter dates back to the 13th century, when the Jewish population of Prague was warned to vacate their homes and settle in one area.

The Spanish Synagogue is a real jewel

This happened throughout Europe; however, Prague’s Jewish Quarter in particular is known to be the most well preserved of the ‘Jewish ghettos’ in our continent. Testament to the Jewish presence in Prague, the Jewish Quarter comprises six synagogues, as well as the Old Jewish Cemetery. One can purchase a block ticket to visit all these sites, which are to be found within walking distance of each other. The golden-encrusted Spanish Synagogue is something to behold; no wonder it is known to be the most beautiful synagogue in Europe.

At the Old Jewish Cemetery

Two other astonishingly beautiful attractions to be found in Prague are the Clementinum Library and the Strahov Monastery. A special treat for bookworms and book-lovers, these two historical baroque buildings are not as easy to find as other attractions, but again, they are well worth a visit. The baroque library hall at the Clementinum contains some of the oldest, most precious and most expensive illuminated world globes, not to mention unique first-edition, ancient books and tomes, and magnificent frescoed walls and ceilings.

Wowed at the Strahov Monastery

The Strahov Monastery, originally founded as an abbey in the 12th century, does not only contain a historic frescoed library, but also various exhibitions relating to different periods of Prague. The bad news? Both the Baroque Library Hall at the Clementinum and the Theological Hall at the Strahov Monastery, which are the fulcrum of both places, are actually out of bounds. One cannot enter inside. However, you can look at them for as long as you like from outside the cordoned doorway and take pictures from there.

One cannot visit Prague without carousing for one evening at the decadent Absintherie. A mecca for all cocktail and drink lovers, the Absintherie Bar and Museum is a historical landmark offering more than 100 types of absinthe, as well as many absinthe-based cocktails and products. Known as ‘the green fairy’, absinthe is an alcoholic drink containing wormwood, fennel and green anise.

Banned in certain countries, it was originally used in ancient Egypt for medicinal uses. Of course, its use and consumption changed over time. The Absintherie Museum contains a number of unique items on display and is features of the largest absinthe-related collections in Europe.

Drinking at the Absintherie

Just a suggestion, if you visit the Absintherie, make sure to have a safe means of transportation back to your accommodation – one which does not require you to drive or take any intricate decisions!

This article written by yours truly was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta.

Tokyo – 5 Wards in 5 Days!

Tokyo is a multi-faceted gem. Avant-garde technology resides right next to minka – traditional wooden houses with tatami mat flooring and sliding doors, modern skyscrapers butt heads with world heritage shrines and temples, smart businesswomen wearing six-inch stilettos and Gucci handbags come face to face with highly trained professional geishas in colourful kimonos and wooden clogs, while international food-chains like McDonalds and Starbucks compete with historic dishes such as sukiyaki, ramen and miso soup.

How to imbibe all these contrasting, yet strangely harmonious cultural traits while getting the most out of one’s vacation? Having spent almost fifteen hours in the air on two interconnecting flights to arrive at my destination, I couldn’t wait to see and experience as much as possible. Five days dedicated to one city seemed like a lot while I was planning my trip, especially since there was so much else to see outside of Tokyo, however once I was there, I realised that cramming everything into five days was actually going to be quite a feat.

The metropolis of Tokyo, formerly known as ‘Edo’, has a nucleus which is made up of 23 ‘wards’ or municipalities. Each of these is worth exploring and offers a multitude of attractions, yet of course, there are wards which are more popular than others. If you have limited time at your disposal, a good way of delving into Tokyo would be to dedicate one day to each particular municipality. While I was researching and planning my visit to the capital of Japan, there were five particular ‘wards’ which piqued my interest most, and which I personally consider to be unmissable.

Shinjuku

Being a major commercial, entertainment and administrative hub, Shinjuku was the first spot I visited when I arrived in Tokyo, directly after depositing the luggage at my accommodation. Needing caffeine and being an anime and manga lover, I couldn’t help but visit a number of related shopping malls, not to mention popular themed spots and stores such as an Alice in Wonderland themed coffee shop and the Sailor Moon official store.

The Sailor Moon Official Store – Shinjuku

Having drunk some coffee and gained some energy after so many hours of travel, I then proceeded to the Metropolitan Plaza near Ikebukuro Station to pick up the Sim card I had booked online while still in Malta. Because yes, you definitely need google maps and google translate to make your way through Japan, a country where less than a quarter of the population knows a word of English. After a relaxing afternoon walking around the beautifully green Shinjuku Gyoen Park, I caught the tube to Omoide Yokocho, also known as ‘Memory Lane’ – a maze of narrow alleys peppered with red lanterns and tiny open restaurants and stalls offering traditional Japanese street-food at worthwhile prices. Previously home to a post-war black market, this is where today tired locals head after a long day at work to unwind with a glass of beer and some yakitori chicken. Golden Gai, a collection of more than 200 mismatched rundown bars lining the alleyways and corners of Shinjuku, is another such spot where one can eat and drink very cheaply surrounded by locals and the occasional celebrity. The nightlife in Shinjuku is loud and friendly. One can also meander to Kabukicho, the red light district a stone’s throw away.

Memory Lane – Shinjuku

Shibuya

The second day of my stay in Tokyo saw me in Shibuya gaping at the very famous Shibuya Crossing, rumored to be the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world, where approximately 2,500 pedestrians cross at one time coming from all directions at once. Momentarily lost in a sea of metropolitan bustle, I made my way to the well-known Takeshita street, landmark of quirky fashion and unique boutiques. Situated in the Harajuku District, it is here that Gothic Lolitas, dressed in their cute frills, lace, Victorian hats and webbed parasols, parade their particular fashion subculture, congregating on Harajuku bridge, eating crepes at one of the many candy shops or shopping for colorful wigs in appropriate costume stores, of which there are many.

Takeshita Street – Shibuya
A Lolita Store in Takeshita Street

Following all the excitement and rush of humanity prevalent in this area, I made my way to the quieter Meiji Jingu Shrine. A green oasis of majestic trees flanked by huge torii gates, this shrine and the adjacent Yoyogi Park offer a surprisingly large forested area within a densely populated city. The shrine, completed in 1920, is dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken and is perfect for a relaxing stroll.

Meiji Jingu Shrine – Shibuya
Meiji Jingu Shrine

Deciding to spend a kawaii morning, our first stop in Shinjuku after picking up our tickets was the amazing Alice on Wednesday – an Alice in Wonderland themed shop tucked into a side-street but which is quiet large, spreading its magical wares on three floors of girly jewellery in the shape of roses, teacups and top-hats, rabbit mugs, ‘eat me’ and ‘drink me’ cookies, sweets and playing cards, and even handbags in the shape of clocks (I couldn’t help but buying one of these). My boyfriend looked like an elephant in a tea-house, but I appreciate the fact that he waited while I browsed every item minutely, surrounded by other shrieking girls, teens, older women and even toddlers. If you are an Alice in Wonderland aficionado, you can read more about it here.

Asakusa

Craving the vibe of an older, historic Tokyo? Asakusa is the perfect place to imbibe and literally soak in traditional crafts shops, street food stalls, not to mention the classical bath houses or onsen, the famous Japanese hot springs where the natural water contains therapeutic properties and mineral salts said to alleviate a number of health issues. My day began with a trip to a kimono-parlor, where I was outfitted with a yukata – a light cotton summer kimono, the traditional Japanese garment. Having booked this service in advance, I was also served by a hairdresser, who teased my hair into an appropriate style, complete with colorful Japanese hairpins and flowers.

Kimono Store – Asakusa

Declining the extra services of a professional photographer (such parlors always offer this at an augmented price, as well as the use of traditional rickshaws pulled by locals), I made my way on wooden clogs towards Senso-ji Temple nearby. Tourists and even locals were very happy to take photos of me posing in front of this Buddhist temple built in the 7th century. In fact, many of them asked to take photos with me using their own phones as a keepsake, as though I was a tourist attraction myself! The yukata is a surprisingly cool garment considering its floor-length and with full long sleeves, however walking around the enormous temple soon made me hungry and propelled me towards one of the many small ramen-shops lining the street. Ramen soup, made of chicken or pork stock and combined with a variety of ingredients such as whole eggs, seaweed, kombu (kelp), shiitake mushrooms, onions and meat amongst others, is the perfect filling Japanese meal. Tasty and healthy!

Traditional Ramen Soup

Akihabara

Also called the ‘Electric Town’ and situated in Chiyoda ward, is another treasure-trove for all anime, manga, comics and video game lovers, better known as otaku. Home to Mandarake, the largest second-hand comics retailer in the world, this district offers not only shopping centres and computer goods, but also a huge number of what are known as ‘Maid Cafes’, a type of cosplay restaurant where the waitresses are dressed up as kawaii frilly servants redolent of Victorian French maids, as seen through the lens of the prevalent anime aesthetic. A number of rituals and additional food services are available at different maid cafes, which are in no way related to the sex trade, but are merely an innocent way for the itinerant tourist or fan to feel part of a cosplay experience. A number of other anime themed cafes in Akihabara include Gundam Café and the Final Fantasy Erzora café. Gaming arcades and centres are another attraction found in Akihabara. Here one can meet with other gamers, enter contests and even sample the latest gaming technology. Most notable of these arcades are the Sega building and Taito Hey, which specializes in vintage and retro game arcade machines.

Mandarake Store – Akihabara

Ginza

In love with international brands and limited-edition accessories? Then Ginza, full of upmarket boutiques, ritzy cocktail bars and sushi venues, redolent with luxury goods and high-end retailers, is surely the place for you. It is here that French companies such as Chanel, Dior and Louis Vuitton, Italian companies like Gucci, and American bastions of fashion such as Carolina Herrera, have their flagship stores. A number of art-galleries and theatres also predominate, most notably kabuki theatres offering a selection of classical Japanese dance-dramas. Kabuki theatre is known for its historical roots, elaborate masks and make-up and cultural folk tradition dating back to the Edo period (1603 – 1868).

Although I mentioned these five districts in particular, all of Tokyo’s wards offer their own particular flavor. One could go to Ueno prefecture, known for its ornate shrines. Spend the afternoon roaming Tsukiji fish market in Chuo city, eating street-food and perusing stalls at their heart’s content. Another sightseeing gem is Tokyo Imperial Palace, found at the heart of Chiyoda ward. How many days does one need in Tokyo? I don’t think I can really answer this question. Five days were definitely not enough to explore it all. I will be back!

Me and him at Senso-ji Temple – Asakusa

Tokyo – Discovering Shibuya

The metropolis of Tokyo, formerly known as ‘Edo’, has a nucleus which is made up of 23 ‘wards’ or municipalities. Each of these is worth exploring and offers a multitude of attractions, yet of course, there are wards which are more popular than others.

Shibuya Ward, is surely one of the most popular wards in Tokyo, especially with people of a younger age (teens and tweens).

Being a major commercial, entertainment and administrative hub, Shibuya was the first spot I visited when I arrived in Tokyo, directly after depositing the luggage at our accommodation. Since our accommodation was directly next to Ikebukuro Station, it was easy to grab the Fukutoshin Line and navigate through three stops until we arrived directly at Shibuya Station. The journey took less than 15 minutes.

Although we had gone through a tiring journey, having just spent more than 17 hours travelling and waiting at the airport (2.5 hours from Malta to Vienna Airport, 4 hours of layover and then 11 more hours from Vienna to Tokyo Haneda Airport), we were so hyped and excited that we couldn’t not start our first day in Tokyo with a bang, which is why we headed to Shibuya.

At Takeshita Street in Harajuku

We first proceeded to Harajuku to pick up the Sim card we had booked online while still in Malta. Because yes, you definitely need google maps and google translate to make your way through Japan, a country where less than a quarter of the population knows a word of English. We had also booked a shinkansen trip from Tokyo to Kyoto (online as well) from the same company, so we picked the tickets up as well.

Gothic Lolita shops in Harajuku

Momentarily lost in a sea of metropolitan bustle, we made our way through the well-known Takeshita Street, landmark of quirky fashion and unique boutiques. Situated in the Harajuku District within Shibuya, it is here that Gothic Lolitas, dressed in their cute frills, lace, Victorian hats and webbed parasols, parade their particular fashion subculture, congregating on Harajuku bridge, eating crepes at one of the many candy shops or shopping for colorful wigs in appropriate costume stores, of which there are many.

Entering Alice on Wednesday

We couldn’t help but stop and stare at each and every store, but I admit I was actually too overwhelmed to buy anything at first. That is, until we arrived at the amazing Alice on Wednesday – an Alice in Wonderland themed store tucked into a side-street. It is quiet large, spreading its magical wares on three floors of girly jewelery in the shape of roses, teacups and top-hats, rabbit mugs, ‘eat me’ and ‘drink me’ cookies, sweets and playing cards, and even handbags in the shape of clocks (I couldn’t help but buying one of these). One is immediately immersed into Wonderland as s/he navigates through a very tiny door to enter the store. A grinning Cheshire cat greets you at the entrance as you walk through a mirror-filled corridor. My poor six-foot boyfriend looked like an elephant in a tea-house, but I appreciated the fact that he waited while I browsed every item minutely, surrounded by other shrieking girls, teens, older women and even toddlers staining at their mothers’ restraining arms.

Beautiful items for sale at Alice on Wednesday
On the Queen’s Throne! (I prefer Alice to the foolish Queen of Hearts, but there you go)

Following our adventures in ‘Wonderland’, we made our way down the colorful streets to the official Sailor Moon store. Found in the Laforet building, this shop is quiet small and holds mostly knick knacks and items which are out of production and therefore not for sale. I admit that I was very disappointed. It was fun to window shop but there was nothing worth buying. I DID purchase a lot of Sailor Moon memorabilia later on from Mandarake (a large comic book store found in Akihabara Ward) as well as at the Universal Studios in Osaka, but that took place later on during our stay in Japan.

The Sailor Moon Store in the Laforet Building

Of course, we couldn’t visit Shibuya and NOT take a look at the very famous Shibuya Crossing, rumored to be the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world, where approximately 2,500 pedestrians cross at one time coming from all directions at once. Although the spot is interesting, it IS very hectic, so we clicked madly on our cameras for five minutes and then continued on our way.

The Shibuya Crossing

Following all the excitement and rush of humanity prevalent at the crossing, we made our way to the quieter Meiji Jingu Shrine. A green oasis of majestic trees flanked by huge torii gates, this shrine and the adjacent Yoyogi Park offer a surprisingly large forested area within a densely populated city. The shrine, completed in 1920, is dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken and is perfect for a relaxing stroll. It was our first encounter with a Shinto Shrine, and it was truly an experience.

The grounds at Meiji Jingu Shrine

The grounds of Meiji Jingu Shrine can be accessed through two main entrances, both marked by a huge welcoming Torii Gate.  The North entrance is very close to Yoyogi Station, while the South entrance is directly next to JR Harajuku Station. As I walked beneath the Torii gate, the sounds and smells of the busy city were quickly muffled and replaced by the scent of grass and the shuffling of leaves crowding the huge green forest leading up to the shrine. The idyllic serenity and quiet prevalent at the shrine totally clashed with the previous chaos of Shibuya’s urban landscape, and served to highlight the two faces of Tokyo – modern metropolis and spiritual center.

Meiji Jingu Shrine – Tokyo’s Spiritual Core

P.S Don’t think that just because I did not buy anything at the Sailor Moon store, it is not worth visiting! It was still amazing and if you are a fan, you should definitely pop in!

Out of Production Sailor Moon memorabilia

Packing for Japan – Common Issues

During the exciting days leading up to my one-month trip from one continent – Europe, to another – Asia, I found out that packing for a longish trip to a country where there will probably be a number of communication issues due to the language barrier, was quite different from packing for a one or two-week trip to another European country, or a country which is predominantly English speaking. This is because being aware that you might not be able to communicate and ask for certain services and/or products in your target country, will result in you packing certain things which you might otherwise have purchased there instead.

Large Japanese cities such as Tokyo and Osaka see a huge influx of Westerners, leading to many of the locals being able to communicate with them through necessity, however having decided to explore Japan while visiting both the more popular locations, as well as those off the beaten track, I had to take into account that in certain mountain villages, small fishing towns, etc, one could not expect the locals to be able to communicate in your primary language. I kept all of this in mind while packing, as well as, of course, how many pieces of luggage I was allowed to carry with the air ticket I had purchased. In my case, I could take two large pieces of luggage weighing 23kgs each, a hand luggage weighing 8kgs max, as well as a handbag.

Image Source: www.esquire.com

First of all, I would have loved to take all of this with me, however practically speaking, I knew that I would have to lug that baggage around from one city to another, on bullet trains, regular underground trains, taxis, not to mention walk around with them quite a bit, so, seeing as I have only two arms, I decided to take two large pieces of luggage with me and a backpack, even though I could have taken another bag on the plane with me as well. Having decided that, I started to compile my packing list.

Pharmaceuticals/Medicines

Unlike other Asian countries, one does not need to take any mandatory vaccines before visiting Japan. That being said, I was routinely vaccinated for measles, mumps, chickenpox and rubella as a child. Make sure to get health insurance before take-off.

Image Source: www.wikihow.com

If you are packing prescription medicines for one or more health conditions for personal use, it is important to be aware of the rules which visitors to Japan have to abide by. First of all, your country may not have the relevant information about which drugs are illegal in Japan, so it is best to contact the Japanese authorities (such as the Japanese embassy) or research/ask online. Heroin, cocaine, MDMA, opium, cannabis (marijuana), and stimulant drugs, including some prescription medications such as Adderall, are prohibited in Japan. There are no exceptions in bringing these prohibited medications into Japan, even if the medication is legally obtained outside of Japan. Japanese customs officials or police can detain travelers importing prohibited items.

Up to one month’s supply of prescription medicine (that is allowed by Japanese law) can be brought into Japan. Travelers should take a copy of their doctor’s prescription as well as a letter stating the purpose of the drug. Those who must carry more than one month’s supply, or are carrying syringes (pumps) or a CPAP machine, must obtain a Yakkan Shomei, that is, a type of import certificate, in advance, and present the certificate with their prescription medicines at Customs. You can find the relevant import form here. It usually takes two weeks to be processed, sent and received. Make sure to apply well before you leave for your trip. Keep your medicines, together with your prescriptions and import certificate, together in order for you to show them to the customs official at the airport. Take a look at the official Japan Customs website for more detailed information.

Regarding over the counter drugs, according to Japanese law, up to a two-months’ supply of allowable over-the-counter medication and up to a two-months’ supply of allowable vitamins can be brought into Japan duty-free, unless of course, they contain substances which are illegal in Japan.

Clothes and Shoes

Your clothes depend on the weather you’ll be facing when you arrive in Japan. For example, if you are visiting Japan during June/July, that is, in Summer, (as I am) make sure to take light and airy clothing. Summer in Japan is also the ‘rainy season’, therefore apart from your t-shirts and cotton dresses, make sure to take at least one rain coat and/or hoodie. I also packed some sunscreen and insect repellent as I was told that mosquitoes are really fierce during the rainy season!

Whether you are staying in a city or trekking through the mountain regions, you will walk. A lot. Make sure to take more than one pair of comfortable shoes. Trekking shoes are preferable but any kind of tennis shoes, boots or sandals will do as long as you know you can walk long distances in them. Stay away from heels. Personally, I found memory foam soles to be a blessing.

Don’t pack your whole closet into your luggage! You won’t need it. Calculate the number of days you are staying in Japan, then divide the get-ups you’ll need by half that number. Laundromats are plentiful in any city. Having booked predominantly Airbnb self-catering apartments for my stay in Japan, I made sure they almost all had a washing machine (or ‘washer’ as they refer to it locally), so I actually packed only around 12 sets of clothing for my 30-day stay, since I know I will be able to wash my clothes regularly for sure.

Hand luggage

Wherever your country of origin, you will probably be traveling for long hours in order to reach Japanese shores. I needed to catch two planes, adding up to a total of 19 hours of travel, in order to reach Haneda Airport. Since I opted out of having actual hand-luggage, I only had one small bag with me on board, which I used to basically hold all the things I’d need with me in order to entertain myself/rest during that time.

These were the books I had packed for a 10-day trip to France… packing books for a month would have been too much!

Being an avid bookworm, I always carry a number of books with me to read on holiday. Since this time the trip was going to be a long one, I opted to download some ebooks on my tablet instead, in order to minimize weight. My tablet, together with my mobile phone and charger, ipod and headphones, went into my handbag. Since the flights were long and my first day in Japan was packed with activities, I was aware that sleeping on the plane was essential. This is why I also armed myself with earplugs and a small inflatable pillow. Chewing gum and some water went into my bag too, as did a bar of chocolate and some snacks. We were going to be provided with a meal on the flight, but still, 19 hours seemed a long time to me!

I never put on make-up for a flight (strange huh?) but this time round, I also included some basic make-up in my bag, in order to put it on just before we landed in Tokyo, since we would also be sightseeing on that day. If you do so, make sure to place any liquids in a transparent plastic bag and that any bottle needs to hold no more than 100ml.

Of course, don’t forget to pack your Japanese Yen, credit cards, passport and boarding pass too!

Thanks heavens for large handbags!

Image Source: www.123rf.com

Important Tip: Make sure you have a couple of a power plug adapters or voltage converters for the power sockets (outlets) used in Japan. You don’t need a power plug adapter in Japan, if you are coming from the United States of America.

If you have any questions re packing for a trip to Japan, feel free to ask! I will reply as soon as possible.

Paris – Which Tickets to Buy Beforehand

When you’ve been hearing praises and stories about somewhere your whole life, actually visiting that said spot seems not only unreal, but also un-doable. The pervasive feeling that there is so much to see, do and experience takes over your entire mind, until you almost lose any hope of actually cramming in all the exhibits, monuments and places into the time allotted for the trip.

Since Paris is one of those beautiful cities which is also crammed full of tourists queuing up to view its most famous attractions (of which, admittedly, I was going to be one as well), I decided to make my life easier and purchase some of the tickets to venues I knew I was definitely going to visit, beforehand. This is always advisable, whenever one goes to such a famous location, not only to minimize waiting times, but also to maximize the number of things you can do in one day.

Image Source: parispass.com

Although personally I purchased a number of individual tickets for Paris because it was convenient for me to do so, one can also buy one of the many city cards available, such as the Paris Pass, which is a sightseeing, all-in-one, comprehensive package bought once and thereafter providing one with entry to a number of venues.

When visiting a major city like Paris, it is also important to think about transportation. Walking is all well and good for small towns and cities, but when the city is as densely populated Paris, containing approximately two million people, one generally needs some other means of getting around quickly.

I opted to use the Paris metro, which is a huge and efficient network of underground trains. Transport travel cards for the underground can be purchased online, providing daily unlimited use of the metro and offering a wide price range depending on the number of days one chooses the card to be valid for and the zones in Paris to be visited (there are five zones).

THE Paris landmark per excellence is undoubtedly – the Eiffel Tower. Taking its name from its engineer, Gustave Eiffel, this wrought-iron lattice tower was constructed in 1889, is 324 meters tall and held the title of tallest man-made structure in the world for 41 years, until the construction of the Chrysler Building in New York.

Waiting at the security check

When it comes to world-known landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, it is not only important to purchase the entrance ticket beforehand, but to actually buy a skip-the-line entry ticket online, since there are always huge queues waiting to get in, no matter during which time of the year you visit. Although I purchased the skip-the-line ticket myself, there was STILL a queue of people waiting to be checked by security before entering, so I used my waiting time to take some selfies with the Eiffel Tower as a background. Because, seriously, how could one resist? You can find skip-the-line packages on websites such as Viator and GetyourGuide.

The tower itself has three levels accessible to visitors. Be warned, not all entrance tickets cover all three, so be careful which kind of ticket you buy. One climbs up the tower gradually using an elevator (for which, obviously, there is usually another long queue). There are side-stairs as well, but I would not suggest using those unless you have the stamina of a professional athlete and lots of time to waste.

Atop the tower!

The first and lowest level is the largest. It holds a cafeteria, bathrooms and a souvenir shop. The main attraction, however, is the panorama, which one can admire from a large observation deck running all around.

The second level is the second largest, has even more breathtaking views than the first (being higher up), and holds a fine-dining restaurant. The third level, the summit, brings the viewer up to 276 meters above the ground. Seeing the sprawling city of Paris from this altitude makes one really appreciate its largeness, not to mention its beauty.

The breathtaking view from the Eiffel Tower

By the way, did I mention that the elevator taking one up the tower is made of glass and is situated on the outside of the monument? One can see the whole of Paris dwindling further and further away as one ascends. Definitely not for anyone suffering from vertigo!

Another Paris landmark as well known as the Eiffel Tower, is the Louvre museum.

Chock-full with paintings, sculptures, frescoes, mosaics and any type of artwork imaginable, the Louvre Museum was originally built as a fortress and palace and houses the world’s largest art museum. I spent eight hours walking with my head craned upwards and my camera clicking madly, and at the end of the day, exhausted and fulfilled, I had to admit that I had hardly seen half of what the place had to offer.

In front of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa

I did, however, see the most popular attractions – Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the haunting eight-foot-tall headless sculpture known as The Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo. Other countless works of art, including those found within the Islamic Arts section, not to mention the ancient Greek and Egyptian sections, were also truly amazing. By the end of my visit, the one thing I had concluded was simply that I had to come back and spend more time here to appreciate such treasures further.

The courtyard of the Louvre Museum

Again, it is important to buy skip-the-line tickets for this world-famous attraction as well, since as in the case of the Eiffel Tower, the queues waiting at the entrance are imaginable. I’m gonna mention Viator and GetyourGuide once more, as they are two very trusted sites where one can purchase these tickets. Personally tried and tested!

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If you are unsure whether the website you are buying your tickets from is safe or to be trusted, make sure to visit Trustpilot, where you will find reviews and comments from other travelers regarding their experiences. It is very important to make sure service providers are legitimate by checking out the customer reviews. Be wary of scams and fake companies!

You could even try looking up the company’s address on google maps to see if it actually exists in that location. If in doubt, don’t buy! Become a member of one or more Facebook travelling groups and ASK whether anyone has any experience with the particular company or website. These  groups usually have thousands of members, so you will get many good suggestions for sure.

Holiday Targets – What are your Priorities?

Most people have a particular aim when going abroad on holiday. The term ‘holiday’ evokes thoughts of relaxation and sightseeing. However, although that is the general idea, when it comes to choosing a destination as a target where to spend one’s time, not to mention one’s money, other factors start to come into play.

Some individuals just want to get away from it all.

They want to leave behind the incessant, boring, almost ritualistic routine of everyday life. They need to take off their shackles and turn their backs on the myriad of hassling minutiae which, little by little, build up towards that indomitable mound of mood swings and nerves, more commonly known as stress. If you are in need of this kind of holiday, the destination is not really all that important, as long as you leave your daily routine. You don’t even need to research all that much, just take a look at the airline website of your choice, and off you go to the nearest beachy location.

Image source: Hawaiihideaways

Others have something more concrete in mind. Perhaps they’ve had enough of the sea and sun for a while, especially if they’re Maltese or Mediterranean, and prefer to spend their free time in some mountainous cold country. Or perhaps they love the sea, but would like to experience some different version of it, and so jet off to other climes, such as Tahiti, Hawaii, or the Seychelles.

And what about those whose target is to party, party, and then party some more? These usually choose clubbing destinations like Ibiza, Aiya Napa in Cyprus, or Barcelona.

Image source: Dannykaiibiza

Then there are those who simply cannot spend a year without going to London, Paris or Milan at least once, especially during the sales period, in order for them to stock up on the latest fashion and revamp their wardrobe.

These, are all worthwhile intents for the holiday maker. However they are not exactly my cup of tea. Personally I feel that the most interesting and enlightening objective for undergoing any kind of voyage is what I call historical or cultural travelling. It’s not hard to deduce what this kind of expedition entails. If you’re planning a trip to Versailles, the Pyramids of Giza, Dublin’s Trinity College, the Vatican or Stonehenge, and if you’re interested in discovering a historical path which traces back the origins of humanity and its steps and evolution, then, like me, you are one of those culturally thirsty individuals who, apart from viewing the beauties of nature itself, are also fascinated by the greatest riddle ever put upon this planet – humanity. After all, isn’t traveling a means of growing and developing as individuals? And what could benefit us more than learning about different cultures, about our heritage as human beings, apart from observing the many creative ways one can express himself/herself, that is – art.


On the ferry towards the Eiffel Tower – Paris

Unlike those who merely pick any location for its tranquility, or its number of clubbing venues or shopping centers, historical/cultural travelers have to plan their vacations carefully. Not only do they go about this geographically, but also according to their given time frame. Generally, when a cultural traveler plans a trip, s/he firstly chooses an accommodation which puts him/her at the center of things; at the cultural center s/he is staying in. On the other hand, if a car is being rented, it is important for one’s main accommodation to be at an equidistant spot where the sought-after castles, cathedrals, and monuments are relatively close. When it comes to culturally-oriented holidays, the main target is to sightsee as many locations as possible during the time allocated.

The Coliseum – Rome

When I’m about to travel to a country which is very rich in historical sites, I usually try to plan a day-by-day itinerary. Apart from taking into account the distance of the site from my initial starting point, I also check the opening times of the places I want to visit, as well as ticket prices. This is very important, since it would be terrible to drive for two hours in order to visit a particular castle on a Saturday, only to find that it’s normally closed during the weekends. Blessed be the internet, for its wisdom allows people such as myself to check such things beforehand.

It is true perhaps, that cultural travelling takes more time and energy to plan than any other kind, since one must consider more factors and issues, such as the specific protocols of certain venues. The rewards however, are well worth the effort. In the end, even if you are not a history or a culture-buff, and have, for example, travelled to Rome mainly for the shopping, I bet you would still not pass by a chance to visit the Coliseum. After all, some opportunities only present themselves once, and certain wonders are well and truly not to be missed.

Exploring Venice on a Budget

When one hears the word ‘Venice’, the first adjective which comes to mind is ‘romantic’, the second one is, undoubtedly, ‘expensive’. This is what the majority of people think, and what I myself assiduously believed during my teens, when visions and dreams of visiting this unique floating city would cross my mind. Finally, a couple of years ago, I actually looked into the option of visiting Venice seriously, and when I did my research what I discovered was that visiting Venice was not at all as expensive as I had expected! On the contrary, going there for Valentine’s Day in February became an entirely do-able option. Of course, I had to do my homework first.

A commonly-made mistake is that of believing that because Venice Marco Polo Airport falls within the Commune of Venice itself, it is the most advantageous one. Personally, I found that using Treviso Airport instead was much less expensive, considering that this smaller airport caters for low-cost airlines. When it comes to flights, it is imperative to book at least six months in advance when travelling to very popular destinations such as Venice. This minimizes costs considerably, both when it comes to airport fees, as well as accommodation. The 2-hour flight from Malta to Treviso Airport for example, when using Ryanair, rarely costs more than €140, return and all, when this premise is taken into account. One can then buy a ticket for the shuttle bus either online or from the plane itself. The ATVO shuttle bus for example, costs only €18 (return ticket included) and left us right in Piazzale Roma in Venice. More information can be found on the official website here

My heart soared as we booked the flights and shuttle bus, only to crash in despair as the time to start looking for a beautiful, clean and preferably central accommodation came closer. Beset by the idea that any hotel within Venice itself would be stratospherically expensive, I was actually flabbergasted when after only some minutes of searching I found what would be our refuge for our much dreamt-of four nights in Venice. Hotel Ca’ Zose , set in a 17th century building, is to be found squarely in the center of Venice, being almost exactly next to the famous Chapel of Santa Maria della Salute. This Chapel, built in 1681, is richly decorated with statues and a prevalent Baroque-style. Its two domes and two bell-towers dominate the skyline, and it is, in fact, present in most popular photos, pictures, and paintings emblematic of the city of Venice.

Venice has become widely known for its element of elegant decay. Its rich and diverse architecture, most notably the Venetian Gothic style of its Palazzi, combining Byzantine and Ottoman influences, has enchanted poets and painters, writers and musicians. This graceful style with its intricate designs, and rich window frames, is perfectly exemplified in the famous Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti – a veritable dream upon the water.  Built in 1565, visions of the Palazzo delight anyone who ventures on the Grand Canal, not to mention offering various exhibitions and events throughout the year, since it is also the seat for the Venetian Institute of Sciences, Humanities and the Arts. I was also wowed by the beautiful Ca’ d’Oro, also on the Grand Canal, which with its floral Gothic architecture and colonnaded loggias, is a fairytale-like testament to Venice’s more prosperous past as a seaside port.

The Venetians prized every inch of land, not so surprising when one takes into account the huge number of canals running through the city, and the fact that throughout the years, slowly but surely, the land is being inexorably reclaimed by the sea. Its magnificent buildings are sinking, its charming artwork is slowly decomposing. This too, somehow, seems to add to its sad and sinister beauty. So much to see, so many entrance tickets to purchase, and yet, I still found a way to circumvent even this issue. Not by plunging head-first into palaces and art-galleries, forcing astonished receptionists and irate security-guards to come running after me, breathless with indignation – but by buying the Venezia Unica City Card. This is basically a card (or more accurately, a voucher), which offers the historically-minded traveler a chance to access a large number of monuments, churches and museums, including the famous Palazzo del Doge, by paying one single price, instead of purchasing a ticket at the door of each attraction. This is cheaper of course, if you are interested in visiting a certain number of such architectural gems. The Card also offers a number of other services, like a toilet pass and use of public transport. It can easily be purchased online here.

Venice is not a solid landmass, but an archipelago, that is, it consists of a myriad of tiny islands interlinked with bridges. On the first day of my stay, I was simply gutted to finally cross over to the district of San Marco, after walking across the famous and incredibly imposing Rialto Bridge, which is the oldest bridge spanning the Grand Canal. Flanked by small cute coffee shops and restaurants on the one side, and a market sporting Venetian masks, side-by-side with renowned brand-names like Louis Vuitton and Giorgio Armani on the other, this powerful structure built in the 12th century stretches between sea, sky, and land. It would have been utterly perfect, had it not been so hard to take a photo with all the hundreds of tourists jostling me, however finally I managed.

An important tip – don’t wear heels if you are going to be walking around Venice! Amazed by the grandeur of Piazza San Marco, flanked by Saint’s Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace, I couldn’t stop from gazing upwards, thereby causing the underside of one of my shoes to scrape the pavement the wrong way and the platform to literally disintegrate, resulting in a panicked and frenetic search for a pair of cheap yet comfortable shoes in the most expensive part of Venice. Fortunately, the Venezia Unica Card proved to be a blessing in this case as well, since afterwards, instead of having to wait behind interminable queues to enter the Italo-Byzantine Basilica of Saint Mark resplendent with gold designs and opulent mosaics, I could join those smart few who had already purchased their tickets online, and who were therefore waived through reception without delays. Next to Saint Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace, overlooking the lagoon on one side, and the Piazza on the other, houses one of the greatest museums in Europe, magnificently offering a glimpse of Venice’s opulent youth, through the Doge’s Apartments and the Senate’s Chambers. Its portego; a long corridor of Gothic arches, was truly a treat.

As I made my way back to the hotel on the last day of my stay, I also made it a point to look for and visit the Bridge of Sighs, adjacent to what was once the prison, and where convicts would, according to legend, take one last look at the world outside, before going to face their fate. Ironically enough, for a brief moment I could understand their sense of loss, since I too, was leaving Venice.

What to wear at the Airport?

Your passport is in your handbag, you remembered to pack your moisturiser, your favorite scarf and your current read, and you’re ready to go… but are you?

Everyone looks forward to flying abroad for a holiday, away from the worries and cares of everyday life. There are also those who travel a lot for work purposes, and for whom catching a plane is as common-place as catching a bus. Be it work or pleasure, a two-week holiday or a two-day business trip, most people tend to plan and take great care when packing. We write lists and double-check everything in order to make sure not to leave anything important behind. This is all well and good, yet the time comes when all is set, the hour is finally upon you to drive to the airport… and we still have no idea what to wear for the journey!

Even though the end-game of travel is of course to arrive at one’s destination, the flight itself is important too, especially if it’s going to be a long one.

Most flights (at least in Europe) take approximately between two and five hours. Of course, this depends on the destination, and if you have an interconnecting flight or a delayed one, it takes even longer. You’ll be actively walking, carrying your heavy handbag, and lugging your even heavier and larger luggage around for at least half a day. Also, any responsible traveler makes sure to be at the airport at least an hour and a half before their flight, due to check-in and security.

Image source: ManchesterAirport

This is why it’s important for one’s travelling attire to be comfortable and practical. On the other hand, the clothes you’re wearing on your flight will most probably be those you’ll be wearing on the first day of your holiday, which is perhaps the reason why most people seem to sometimes prefer flashy fashion to actually being comfortable. Yes, it’s nice to be well turned up and pretty during your first day as a tourist in a new place. You’re obviously excited and looking forward to it. However it’s much more important to feel comfortable, in order to truly enjoy the experience to the max. Certain airlines even give points, an upgraded service, or some kind of bonus to those who are well-turned out (not many airlines in Europe do this). Some people like to compromise, however there are times when you must decide what’s more important for you – bonus points for being smart, or a comfortable flight (especially if it’s a long one from Europe to Asia for example).

Here are a few tips from an incorrigible globetrotter:

Make sure you have comfortable shoes! – This, I think, is the ‘One tip to rule them all’. I love shoes and I love heels, but unless you have absolutely no luggage (or a four-armed boyfriend acting as your personal porter), and won’t be crossing a number of busy airport aisles and check-ins, you really don’t need six-inchers at this point. Flat shoes or ballerinas are the best, clogs are fine, and shoes with short thick heels are passable, though still tiring in the long run. If you opt to wear boots, make sure your socks have no holes in them, since you might be asked to take them off at the check-in.

Image source: Health.harvard

Go for jeans or trousers – If you’re travelling for a work conference, to which you’ll be going directly from the airport, it’s understandable that you may want to look chic and professional when wearing your work clothes or business suit. This, however, does not mean that you can’t be practical. Tights have a habit of mysteriously ripping and getting seams, projecting an untidy or slatternly look. This is definitely not something you’d want during an important meeting. It’s therefore better to opt for trousers, a shirt, a smart blazer, and be done with it. Better safe than sorry!

Image source: Starstyle

Wear layers, even in summer – The air is colder in high altitudes. True, you’ll be on a plane, but the chilly air will still get to you, especially if you’re travelling at night. On the other hand, during a long flight, you might get stuffy and feel cooped up and squashed between so many people, unable to move around. It very much depends on the individual, and you could feel cold one minute and uncomfortably warm the next. It’s therefore better to be prepared.

Image source: Trendspotter

Follow airline regulations – Ensure that there are no liquids, sharp objects or metallic accessories in your hand luggage if possible. That is of course, unless you’re into being taken aside and inspected by security personnel while the huffing and puffing people behind you grumble and throw you dirty looks!

A version of this article, written by yours truly, was originally published on EVE magazine.

The Importance of Preparation

When your target is to see and experience as much as you can within a particular period of time, you generally try to save time by planning as much as you can beforehand, in order to be able to sight-see as much as possible, in the few days (or if you are lucky, weeks) you have abroad. Sometimes, it may even feel as though you are running against the clock. The trick is to get all the planning and research done before you are actually on your holiday, and not after you have arrived at your destination per se.

Here are some tips which could help you prepare for your much-awaited adventure:

1. Set your dates and buy your flight: Make sure that you are free of work / school / any other appointments and as soon as you are sure, book those flights IMMEDIATELY! Flight prices tend to go up closer to the date, so the first thing to do is to get that out of the way, especially if you are on a budget!

2. Budget: See how much you can really spend, taking into account accommodation, travelling expenses, food, museum / castle / events tickets, not to mention shopping!

3. Decide which part of the country you are going to use as your base: If you are staying at the city center, then obviously your accommodation should be situated there. If, on the other hand, you are exploring a remote part of the country, or going on a road-trip, you might even decide to stay at two or three different locations, in order to be able to continue with your journey as you go along, instead of having to always return to the same bed.

4. Decide on a mode of transportation: How will you get from the airport to your accommodation? Are you renting a car? Will you be using public transport throughout your stay? Are you visiting a friend who will drive you around wherever you wish to go? All this must first be taken into account before actually starting to work on the ‘meaty’ part of the holiday.

5. Once all that is settled and decided, what I usually do is draft a small table or list, starting with the day and time I will be arriving at my destination, and the time I will be leaving. All the space in between is a blank canvas, to be filled in depending on one’s personal agenda and where you wish to go. Take out your map (or better still, go on Google Maps) and start tracing an imaginary line around it and have fun filling in that gap!

Image source: Museivaticani

6. If you know you are visiting a certain place on a certain day for sure, and you find that you can buy the ticket to the place / event online, do so! In most cases, the price will be cheaper if you buy it online, not to mention the most important fact that you will be saving time in which you could be doing something else instead of waiting around in queues!

7. If you have a GPS or a map, mark down the locations where you are certain you would like to go. This will help you find the place more easily when you are actually there. Getting lost is a big NO-NO when it comes to saving time.

8. Try and calculate how much time you will need to travel between one destination and another. For example, if you need to take the train from London to Kent, where you have to attend a specific event or visit a particular place before closing time, check how much time you require for travelling.

9. Check whether the places you wish to visit have opening hours and what they are. It would be pointless to go somewhere and then realize that they have just closed or that they do not open on certain specific days and you end up being there on one of them! I bless the internet on these occasions as almost all the information required can be found online.

10. Pack up your maps, your tickets, your receipts, lists, tables and what-have-you in a sturdy file or folder. This may seem trivial but believe me, you don’t want to lose anything or end up with rain or mud splattered on your tickets, and not be able to enter your chosen location because the person at reception just does not believe you have already paid.

Too much trouble you think? Well personally, I think it’s more than worth it, as once you are at your destination, you end up just enjoying yourself and living in the moment, instead of having to worry about all this stuff.

Bon Voyage!!

Using Land Transport

Whenever I’m conversing with someone about travel and holidays, it’s surprising how many people seem to find land transport to be one of the most difficult issues to navigate through (pun intended).

Travel, in my opinion, is all about adventure and exploration. I’m not one to spend hundreds of euros to travel to a beach to relax somewhere, which I can very well do in Malta or Gozo (my home-country) anyways. Instead, I prefer to see as much of the country I’m visiting as much as I possibly can.

So, when people ask me how I managed to see so many different attractions and places in such a short space of time, it’s mainly because most of them seem to have difficulty with sightseeing when the locations they want to reach are not conveniently placed in a capital city, or in a major urban area. Well, guess what? Aside from taxis (which are too expensive and inconvenient most of the time), there are actually many other easy and economical ways of travelling on land when you are in a foreign country. All it takes to be aware of them is some online research – and for this, I’m eternally grateful to the founders of google.com, Larry Paige and Sergey Brin.

Here are some ideas to help you out with regards to land travel when abroad:

The Tube/Underground/Metro

Granted, this mode of transport is not to be found everywhere, however the network is much vaster than one might believe. Although the London Underground is the most well-known and the oldest system of its kind, there’s actually a vast list of countries which make use of it. These include Algeria, Austria, China, Germany, Belgium, Russia, Japan, Italy, USA, Switzerland, Spain, and many others. The underground is usually my preferred mode of transport to and from the airport, since it’s not only economical, but also very convenient as most airports sport an underground station directly next to, if not beneath them.

Image source: BusinessInsider

Train Stations

The first recorded train station started to be active in 1803. Nowadays, efficiency and easy access to tickets have soared, in that not only can you purchase tickets from automated machines within stations themselves, but also online, which can be done days, if not weeks in advance, foregoing long queues. Railway tracks pass through mountains and valleys, operating cross-border through different countries and states. Most airports are found within at least one or two railway routes, as are a large number of remote countryside towns and even villages, aiding one in travelling across the length and breadth of most countries around the world in a relatively easy manner.

Image source: Londontoolkit

Private Coach

This is a service provided by a number of companies worldwide. Coaches are usually available from a number of focal points, such as airports or key points within the city centre, or even in front of specific hotels. All the traveler has to do is book their passage online at the time and place desired, and they’ll be automatically pooled in with a number of other passengers. Coach routes can vary, ranging from one-hour to twelve-hour journeys or more, and they’re usually furnished with bathrooms, luggage compartments, nightlights, and even beverage-machines. Most coach services are advertised in airport websites themselves, so that’s a good place to start choosing one.

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Image source: Wikimedia

Public Buses

Although these operate mostly in and around cities, towns and suburbs, it’s still worth checking out the relevant timetables before making plans for sightseeing routes, in order to already have the times and distance between different attractions already in mind when you start out. Also make a note on night bus routes, which may be different from the day ones. Bus tickets can usually be purchased as block tickets; instead of buying a ticket each time, you can buy a 3-day ticket or a weekly ticket, depending on how many times you think you’ll be making use of the service. This could save time as well as money.

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Image source: Tvm

Car Rental

If you’re travelling in a group, or even as a couple or on your own, and if, of course, there’s at least one driver in your group who doesn’t mind driving abroad, this is perfectly ideal. Nowadays, there are a large number of reliable Sat-Navs (GPS) on the market, which are much more efficient than the old map-and-directions routine. Of course, it’s always advisable to look up the locations you’re visiting beforehand, and get the lay of the land. I would also recommend using Google Earth and zoom in on street view, in order to virtually acquaint yourself with the surroundings you’re about to travel through. Be especially careful if you’re going to visit a country where people drive on the other side of the road, as this may take some getting used to.

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Image source: Gozoandmalta