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Roman Holiday

The wonders of Rome are legendary. I have yet to meet someone who has never heard about the majestic Coliseum, the Roman Pantheon or the Catholic bastion that is Vatican City. Perhaps it is this notoriety which tends to generate a sense of overwhelming panic whenever someone decides to finally visit Rome.

The capital city of Italy in fact is so chock-full of cultural treasures, historical icons, places to see and things to do, that most people tend to feel at a loss when they are about to start planning a trip there. This usually results in many of them taking the easy way out by joining a group tour, or renting a guide, rather than planning and exploring the city on their own. However, panicking is not the way to go, since planning a comprehensive trip to Rome is not as complex as it might seem.

The Coliseum
Inside the Coliseum!

First of all, there is such a variety of experiences to be savored in Rome, that any kind of trip – be it a one-day adventure, or a week-long visit, will definitely not be boring. Personally, I would suggest at least 5 days in Rome, since there is so much to see that any less would leave you with a whetted appetite and a sense of loss brought about by all the things you did not have time for.

Accommodation: Hotels in the city centre are expensive. That is a given. However, transport in Rome is so efficient that one does not really need to be in the city centre to be able to explore everything on one’s itinerary. In fact, finding accommodation at the periphery of Rome is much more preferable, since the traffic, smog and noise will be less, as will the price.

Transport: Renting a car in Rome is a no-no. Traffic and traffic-jams are a veritable nightmare, not to mention parking. The Italian capital can however boast of a very punctual and dynamic metro system, not to mention very organised bus and tram services. One can easily purchase a Travel Pass, or Roma Pass, which can be valid for a period of 24 hours, up to two, three, or even seven days. Passes include the metro, buses, and tram services and can be purchased at any metro station or convenience store.

Time Constraints: Be sure to check the opening and closing times of any attraction you are interested in visiting. Certain museums or shops in Italy may be closed on Mondays, others close on Sundays, while others still close for lunch and re-open again later. It would be pointless to spend thirty minutes on the bus, only to arrive at destination and realize that the place you wanted to visit is closed. Another thing to take into account is the possibility of security checkpoints. These are a fixture in places such as the entrance to Vatican City or the Coliseum, so if you are planning to see two or more attractions in one day, make sure to get an early start.

Trevi Fountain

Main Attractions: Prepare yourself for queues. Long queues. Queues where you will waste even more time. Especially at such main attractions as the Trevi Fountain, the Coliseum, Vatican City, the Roman Forum and the Roman Pantheon. The solution to this problem is to purchase entrance tickets online beforehand. This is usually not only cheaper, but also less time-consuming, since it offers you the option of buying ‘skip-the-line’ tickets which, as the name suggests, enable you to skip most of the queues. Make sure you purchase the tickets from trusted websites such as Isango or Viator (tried and tested personally many times over).

Keats-Shelley Memorial House

Other Unmissable Places: My favorite experience in Rome was a visit to the four main Roman Catacombs. Underground Rome is in fact, as mysterious and magical as Rome above-ground, and its history just as interesting. For literature-lovers, I would also suggest visiting the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, stationed exactly at the corner of the Spanish steps, where the renowned Romantic poet John Keats died. Those with an interest in the history of the Second World War, will surely be tempted to take a look at Villa Torlonia, better known as Mussolini’s Private Residence.

Villa Torlonia
Inside Villa Torlonia

Castel Sant’ Angelo, a beautiful round fortress located very near Vatican City is another bulwark of Roman architecture, as are the enchanting Villa Borghese and the Villa Medici, where one can admire a number of unique sculptures, painting and artwork. If you need a breather away from the hustle and bustle of the city, the beautifully landscaped gardens of Villa Borghese are a must.

Villa Borghese
Inside Villa Borghese
Zeus and Daphne – One of the beautiful works of art found in Villa Borghese

Better still is grabbing the commuter train and in less than forty minutes arriving at the sprawling ruins of Ostia Antica. This huge archaeological site still houses the remains of a number of historical buildings, including a huge amphitheatre, a number of public baths, taverns, inns, shops, various temples and shrines, and even a necropolis. Be warned though – you will need a full day to appreciate the remnants of this ancient Roman port.

The amphitheatre at Ostia Antica

What can I say? Rome cannot be explored in one week, much less one day, and it cannot be described in only one blogpost. Can’t wait to visit again sometime soon!

A version of this article was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta.

Shopping at Camden Town

It is an undeniable fact that most people annually visit London for no other reason than to re-stock their wardrobe. Although personally, my priorities are mostly somewhat different, I must say that in my case too, a trip to London generally always manages to entice me in dedicating at least half a day to shopping. Although perhaps – not in such a conventional way. While the most mainstream shoppers turn their eager faces towards Oxford Street, my two feet always tend to lead me towards what is known as the capital of alternative fashion, that is, Camden Town.

Camden High Street

Camden Town, situated in North-West London, is an inner city district famous for its alternative style and eccentric markets. In fact, here one can find anything ranging from burlesque costumes to gothic apparel, from punk clothing to cyber accessories, from vintage furniture to hippy and ethnic piercings.

Arriving at Camden Town tube station

It is quite easy to visit Camden Town – just take the London Underground, following the Northern Line (that is, the black-colored one as shown on tube-maps). Camden is to be found between the two stops named ‘Camden Town’ and ‘Chalk Farm’. Although either stop is fine, I would personally suggest stopping at Camden Town tube station, since this will leave you exactly on Camden High Street. Chock-full with gothic dresses, rockabilly jewellery and tattoo parlors, this main street offers not only a great first impression to the curious shopper, but more importantly, it plays an important part in what I like to call ‘the bargaining game’. This is because while fixed prices are certainly set for each item found within the impressive shops lining the main street, the vendors found manning the stalls in the other markets within Camden Town, not only accept, but almost invite bargaining. When one is aware of the actual fixed price and value of an item, one has at least an idea of the starting point for one’s haggling.

Camden High Street

As I already mentioned, there are a number of different markets within Camden Town itself. Let us paint a mental map and imagine it all. We leave Camden Town Tube Station and start strolling down the main road. The shops lined on both sides of the street are themselves a sight to behold, since most of them sport sculptured representations of their own products on the buildings themselves. Suddenly, an opening on the right-hand side of the street presents us with a crazy medley of street stalls and perky vendors. The title ‘Camden Market’ is written over it all, even though this busy motley was originally known as the ‘Buck Street Market’. Here you can browse and haggle to your heart’s content, but beware – these sellers are a wily lot! The last time I was in Camden, no less than three different vendors, one after the other, tried to entrap me in deals I did not want, by telling me that since I was their ‘first customer of the day’ they would give me ‘a special treatment’. Strange thing to say, since I was there at 2 in the afternoon! Another guy started flattering me, saying that I had the perfect figure for the coat I was trying on, only to turn around and say exactly the same thing to the overweight old lady behind me! Tricks of the trade which one should be on the look-out for, though to be honest, they serve as fodder for a good laugh as well.

The Camden Market

On the other side of the Camden Town market stalls is a tiny market which mostly sells vegetables and local produce, as well as t-shirts, handbags and shoes. This is known as the Inverness Street Market, and has been colouring Camden Town since the beginning of the 1900s.

Moving on, we come to the most idyllic and picturesque part of Camden Town, that is, Camden Lock Market. Situated by the Regent’s Canal, the Lock Market, also known as the crafts market, offers a number of semi-permanent stalls selling musical instruments, wooden toys, flower soaps, ethnic décor, artwork, semi-precious stones, Celtic designs, leather creations, and other curios. For the musically-inclined, this market also offers a huge number of rock memorabilia.

Camden Lock Market
Camden Lock

At this point in my shopping-spree, after having bought all I can reach and with more to come, I’m usually famished. The main yard in the middle of Camden Lock Market offers a wide variety of take-away food, often ‘alternative’ in and of itself. It was here that I first tasted crocodile meat, as well as zebra kebabs. Indian and Moroccan food abounds, as do fish paella, American burgers and German sausages. My favorite however, will always be the food for which London is most renowned – the traditional fish and chips.

Stables Market

With our appetite assuaged, we continue our visit by crossing over from Camden Lock Market to what is known as the Camden Lock Village. Situated on the other side of the lock itself, the village is full of stalls presenting not just hand-made decorations and clothes, but also still more alternative fashions and footwear, as well as casual-wear, and more. Finally, when one continues going down the street, one arrives at Stables Market, which is the first market one encounters if one stops at Chalk Farm Tube Station. This market, so-named because it is a former horse-hospital, focuses on alternative fashion and clothes. The huge number of shops, more than 700 in fact, specialize in exceptional styles and particular stores. These range from Sai Sai, a shop perfect for those who want to explore the Gothic Lolita lifestyle, to Cyberdog, which like a club, provides shows given by dancers, colored laser-lights and loud music, while selling cyber clothing and accessories upstairs, and adult toys and lingerie downstairs.

Cyberdog

Camden Town is a must-visit when one is in London, and not just for alternative- fashion lovers. Watching the myriad of different people going about their everyday lives, basking in such an atmosphere, is a great experience in and of itself. Camden Town also has an important part to play in the Britpop and rock movements, since many musicians and bands have lived or played there at some point. The nightlife in Camden is in fact another highlight. Clubs like Underworld and the Electric Ballroom (which also serves as an indoor market during the day) host a number of monthly gigs and concerts. However, remember not to get completely carried away, since the last tube leaves Camden Station at around 1am!

Thinking about what to buy!

All these markets in such a small part of London, and all of them open 7 days a week. To be sure, there are more stalls during the weekend, but believe me, even shopping on a week-day will ensure a full day of bauble-buying and bargain-hunting. Definitely a must-visit for every fashion-minded adventurer!

This article was originally published on The Sunday Times

The Punkva Caves and the Macocha Abyss

The subterranean Punkva River, being almost 30 kilometers in length, is the longest underground river in the Czech Republic. It is thanks to the erosion, fluctuation and twisting flows of its many tributaries that an extensive system of underground passages, domes and abysses was formed underneath what is known as the Moravian Karst, a protected nature reserve on the eastern part of the Czech Republic.

This beautiful region is home to a number of unique geological features, not least of which are a number of cave systems underlying the lush green woodlands and forests. The most famous of these cave networks are the Punkva Caves located to the north of the city of Brno, which showcase one of the natural wonders of the Czech Republic – the Macocha Gorge.

Fortunately, we had researched our destination well before actually visiting the caves and so realized early on that they could only be accessed through a guided tour. Since tours of the caves only take place at allocated times, not to mention the fact that the place is a famous tourist attraction, it is important for anyone interested in visiting to book the tour beforehand.

We bought our tickets online, yet still had to visit the Visitor’s Center to exchange our e-mail with the actual tickets. While there, we were also told that if we wanted to take photographs in the caves, we had to purchase a colored sticker for a small fee and attach it to our clothes. This may seem strange, but it is common procedure in certain countries.

Armed with tickets, stickers, cameras and expectations, we boarded the small tram from the Visitor’s Center to the entrance of the Punkva Caves. One can, of course, opt to walk the two-kilometer woodland trail instead of using the tram. Once we arrived in front of the entrance, I abruptly realized that it would be much colder underground, and that the light clothes I was wearing, suitable for a stroll in the sun, were definitely not enough for the freezing caves.

There was only the official merchandise store nearby, so I hurried over and bought a bright red ‘Punkva Caves’ sweater for the occasion. It did keep me warm during the one-hour tour and was also a very nice souvenir. At least I had the good sense to wear comfortable sneakers.

Our group was made of around 30 people. I was glad to see that there were even small children and senior citizens – a clear indication that there were no dangerous, unsecured sheer drops or rough terrain to climb ahead. After all, one does not need to be a miner to explore the Great Underground! The caves are, in fact, very safe for visitors, being equipped with plenty of lighting and having level floors and stairs. Unfortunately, it was at this point that we realised that the tour was in Czech and that there were no tours in English available. However, I had previously found and downloaded a free mobile application with a tour book of the caves on my mobile phone and I found that very helpful.

The tour itself is actually divided in two parts. The first part is on foot, while the second consists of a very atmospheric boat-ride on the subterranean Punkva River.

Mirror Lake

As we entered the caves, a four-metre-long stalactite welcomed us in the Front Dome, a large, hall-like space filled with myriad stalactites and stalagmites. Walking on, I was literally mesmerised as I encountered the Mirror Lake, whose waters are so clear as to leave one in total awe. Two worlds seemed to meet, divided by the water’s surface, as the crystalline stalactites met their counterpart through the underground lake’s reflection.

Steep steps took us up a 10-metre shaft-like tunnel leading to what is known as the Dome of Destruction, in reference to a cave collapse which had occurred sometime after the dome’s excavation. Following a corridor of naturally shaped water-columns, we were finally behind two impressive rock formations known as ‘The Angel’ and ‘The Curtain’. Looking up at the majestic play of water on rock, one cannot help but feel a sense of greatness at the power and wonder of nature.

The ‘Angel’ and the ‘Curtain’ formations

Having covered almost 810 meters of the 1,250-meter tour, which is the longest underground trail open to the public in the Czech Republic – the best was yet to come. We proceeded in single file through a narrow tunnel passage opening up to the inspiring Macocha Gorge, also known as the Macocha Abyss.

This 138.7-metre deep sinkhole is the deepest of its kind in central Europe and can be viewed from the bottom up from the Punkva Caves. One can also take a cable car from the surface to the top to admire some unforgettable views.

The Macocha Gorge

Being in a cave while looking upwards at the sun through a gorge and seeing the green trees of the forest sparkle and being reflected in the two small lakes at the bottom of the abyss is truly a magical experience. Once our eyes adjusted to going from almost total darkness to blinding light in only a few minutes, taking selfies and almost full blown-out photoshoots was inescapable.

The lakes at the bottom of the Abyss

At this point, our tour guide bid us goodbye as she led us to the second part of the tour. A small underground dock dotted with some tiny boats awaited us. Our group split up further, since the minute boats could only accommodate eight people.

Our second tour guide, an old, crusty man steering the wooden boat with a paddle, again spoke only Czech. In halting heavily accented English, he warned us sternly that photographs were not permitted on the boat, as this could be dangerous since we would be passing through very narrow channels, and any excessive movement could cause the boat to capsize. He also warned tall people to keep their heads and hands down, since some of the tunnels were quite low and they could easily hit their head on a stalactite.

I honestly thought he was joking, but he was dead serious and with good reason. The boat buckled alarmingly as we cast off and slowly meandered through the winding river.

As we left the small dock, the walls started to close in, together with the darkness and the cold. At that point, I was grateful I did not suffer from claustrophobia. Later I learned that the water of the river has a depth of approximately 50 metres, but at the time, feeling the weight of the earth on my head, twisting this way and that trying not to get hit in the head by a stalactite, the cold dark surface of the river seemed to hide something more sinister. The old man steering the boat reminded me of Charon ferrying the souls of the newly deceased across the River Styx, surrounded by seemingly fragile dripstones and colourful rock formations hanging from the cave’s ceiling.

Floating between the darkness of the caves and the darkness of the waters below through a succession of narrow tunnels with low ceilings and small fairytale pools felt like a breathtaking dream. In the end however, we had to wake up, as the boat floated up the river to the Punkva Spring above ground. This is where the tour ended.

Taking back the tram to the Visitor’s Center once more, we were pleased to note that the smaller Katerinska Caves were only a 10-minute walk away, so we were overjoyed to visit them as well, before stopping at one of the charming restaurants nearby for lunch. An anti-climax, but a very needful one after such a memorable adventure.

This article was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta

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.

ZPY_300_Zarb_Coaches_IVECO_Eurorider_C33_-_Hispano_Divo._Malta
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.

tal-linja2
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