Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Sentinels Through time

Great art and architecture leave their mark on a city like the lines and scars on an old man’s face.  You look at them and wonder, what glories and troubles you must have seen.

So when I visit a city as old and as well known as Paris, I can’t help but be captivated by its longest and sometimes most overlooked witnesses, like the gargoyle on the old well at the Cluny Museum. 

The Cluny is a wonderful museum that most people overlook for the more ambitious collection of the Louvre, or the more fabulous draw of the Champs-Élysées.  But it is a wondrous place, filled with art and artifacts from Paris’ Dark Ages, before it became the City of Lights. 

Severe Gothic statuary, radiant stained glass, and the famed unicorn tapestries are housed in the walls of the historic structure, built during the Middle Ages over the site of ancient Roman baths. 

The Cluny has seen its share of owners and visitors, from Bishops and Abbots, to astronomers, and even royalty, as the temporary home to Henry VIII’s sister, Mary Tudor.  But the most charismatic figure is the gargoyle on the well.  Sitting in the courtyard, weathered and worn by the resolute passing of time, who knows what events, what people, what triumphs and tribulations he has witnessed.  If he could only talk…

For more information on out-of-the-way sites of Paris, contact Renaissance Journeys.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Kept Secrets of London

From the dark and creepy halls of the Tower, to the stately Georgian rows of Kensington, to the glitz and glamour of Piccadilly (by the way, can you think of a word that is more fun to say in the English language than Piccadilly?), I love London.

And as a self-proclaimed anglophile, I have spent a lifetime worshipping the English culture. So when I’m walking the streets of London, I can’t help but harken back to those pages of the history books when Lords and Ladies held court; decisive battles were fought; heads were cut off. The world of Shakespeare comes to life; thee’s and thou’s cascading embarrassingly from my lips. And Dickens, my beloved Dickens, comes to me. I see street urchins picking the pockets of unsuspecting marks; brightly dressed young men busy in their studies; and old misers rushing on their way to work. If these shadows remain unaltered…

We all know the names and stories. And I think it’s becoming very clear to all of you just how much of a closet geek I truly am. And so it is only with great trepidation that I reveal one of my innermost secrets, my guiltiest pleasure when I visit London. Read no further if you want to maintain yourself as cool and indifferent.

Among all the museums, landmarks, stages, and pubs, my favorite place of all in London is the British Library. Yes, the Library. Stacks and stacks of books lining shelves holding the world’s knowledge; the aroma of moldy pages mingled with dust; the profound reverence of the quiet.

My first visit to this pantheon of geekness was at the suggestion of my husband, a self-proclaimed geek who accepted himself years ago. He has a thing for maps (he collects them, studies them, and can read any map of any place and immediately make it his own). So when he found out that the British Library has an extensive collection of ancient maps, many of them by the “big names” of mapmaking that only he and a few others would even recognize, he asked if we could spend a morning there. It was only going to be an hour or so and then we could move on to something else, he assured me.

Off to the Library we went, and at the top of the stairs we came to the map exhibit which had my husband in a trance and me mildly curious. But as I left him in his ecstasy to venture further, I came to another area of the exhibit that called to me: cases and cases of rare books on display from every possible place and time in history.

The first area I came to was a collection of ancient religious texts from something ridiculous like 3 minutes after the death of Christ, some of them in Aramaic. I walked back to my husband and told him: “You know they have fragments of text in Aramaic? You gotta come see this.” My husband is also a lover of linguistics (I told you he was a geek) and so this actually got him away from the maps.

We went through, piece by piece, as the gospels evolved into beautifully illuminated medieval Bibles with ornate decorations surrounding figures of people, animals, and sometimes combinations of both, making it more like an art gallery than a library.

The next area was filled with some of the earliest known written materials from all over the world: scrolls, papyrus, animal skins, and silk. And then, we reached the history section; this was the one that got me. The Magna Carta wasn’t good enough. They had to show off with the document that pre-dated and influenced the Magna Carta, as well as the document signed by the Pope saying the Magna Carta was invalid. We stood there dumbfounded, taking in the ancient writing, the humongous wax seals, the utter magnitude of the thing (or should I say magna magnitude?). It went on and on: laws and documents signed and sealed by Kings; letters signed by Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots. Then on to the science section with the big three: Galileo’s earliest writings, notebooks, and publications; Newton’s books and letters, Darwin’s notes. As I went through, something dawned on me, and I turned to my husband and asked, “You know, with such an extensive collection, wouldn’t you think they’d have a Guttenberg Bible?” And next up, in the very next case: a Guttenberg Bible. Of course they had it.

I was already in heaven. And then, we hit it: the area that brought me to my literary knees. The first Shakespeare Folio was sitting right there among documents signed by the Bard himself. Just on the other side of the glass, I could almost touch it. Be still my heart. Then on to the Dickens case with first editions of everything: Great Expectations with the original ending and with the revised ending, the first Christmas Carol. If I could own a first edition anything, it would be A Christmas Carol. Writings by the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, and every other great English writer imaginable were there. I wanted a cozy chair, a sunlit window, and hours to read.

And just in case you thought the English were stuffy and had no sense of the modern world, an entire case was dedicated to the Beatles: lyrics to the most recognizable songs in the world were right there written on scraps of paper. There were doodles by John Lennon, letters, autographs, and every other possible piece that could be connected to the Fab Four.

We went to the British Library in the morning daylight with the intention of spending an hour or so. We didn’t so much leave as emerge, eight hours later, in the dark of night, like Moses coming down from the mountaintop after seeing God, light radiating from our faces. We could not believe the scope and sheer vastness of their collections, with something for everybody on any possible subject.

It is now my favorite place in London, and mostly undiscovered, as most tourists will go to the other, better-known collections in the city. And although I visited it years ago, that day still sticks in my mind; so much so that I built an entire tour around it so that others could visit the great libraries of England. On your next visit to London, you might want to give it a try, but be warned, this is such stuff as dreams are made on, and you might not want to leave.

Renaissance Journeys is offering a Great Libraries of England Tour this Fall. For more information, please email: info@renaissancejourneys.com

If you’d like to hear more meanderings on travel, you can like Renaissance Journeys on Facebook.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Lost in Time, The Parador of Olite

And so, promising another blog on the wonders of the paradores of Spain…

Paradores. Have you ever gone to a museum, or palace, or other place of untold beauty and said, “I wish I lived there.”? Spain’s paradores offer that kind of experience every day. Among the most noteworthy and impressive buildings in the country, these masterful structures are saved from an otherwise tragic fate of neglect and deterioration, to be restored to their former glory. They range from 3-star to 5-star properties, and so they are sometimes more than affordable, offering a much more authentic experience than the local nondescript hotel chain.

The small unassuming town of Olite (oh-LEE-tay) is another of those pristine hamlets lost in time. It has a small population of locals, cobblestoned streets and pathways, and a small town square for a handful of restaurants excelling in regional specialties. It also has a castle which happens to be a parador.

We went to Olite because we were driving the northeast region of Spain and thought it would be a good stopping point between Barcelona and San Sabastian. The fact that there was a parador there that we could afford helped seal the deal.

And so, here we were, driving the dry summer roads of Spain, searching for the little town. We made our way through the outlying countryside dotted with trees, to come to the old city. Once on the only main road, it could lead to only one place: the Parador.

There it was, towering over the little city, like Gulliver over Lilliput. And oh my, was it a castle; -- complete with heavy stonework, ramparts, towers, and a drawbridge. Built in the 13th century, the castle itself is divided into two areas: the older part, or “old palace” which has been converted to the Parador, and the newer part, or “new palace” which was updated in the much more recent 15th century, and is still preserved as a museum, giving Olite its major tourist site. The hotel lobby was filled with antiques, and on the reception desk was a small poster advertising the annual medieval fair celebrated in the city. “Wouldn’t it have been that much more fabulous to be here during the fair?”

And so we checked in, and wound our way through the high-ceilinged, tapestried halls of the castle to our room, which I can only describe as the greatest room ever. Palatial in size, the room was adorned with decorative tiled floors, heavily beamed ceilings, and antique furniture. But the absolute highlight for me, was the half-canopied bed in dark, ornately carved wood, complete with fanciful blue and white bed linens, draped in elegant curves from the top of its crown to the dramatic puddle at its feet. The ladies reading this will completely understand my obsession with this bed. Princesses-at-heart should always have a canopy, and this one walked out of a dream and into my parador.

After freshening up, and exploring every corner of my noble chamber, it was with some remiss that I dragged myself from this heavenly setting to visit the other section of my castle. We were after all in a new place. We should see the sites. And so we walked out of the castle and through the archway leading to the main square of the town to find it opened to another world. Like Dorothy in her Technicolor Oz, we were met with an overwhelmingly bright city in full regalia. The castle was decorated in lavish banners hanging from every arched window and doorway. The plaza was filled with hucksters, wenches, farmers, and peasant folk in medieval garb. There were stands and booths with artisanal crafts in banged copper, terra cotta pots, and carved wood. Local delicacies abounded: breads, fish, meats, honeys, sweets, and of course, local wines.

We hadn’t even noticed that the medieval fair started that day and was to last for our entire stay. So not your chintzy Renaissance Fair like we do it in the States, these people actually passed down these crafts and skills through the centuries, continuing the long tradition of the fair always held here. The atmosphere was pure magic as we made our way through the town and the weekend full of events, -- yes, culminating in a joust with skilled riders executing the most exacting tasks of precision at full gallop.

When all was said and done, the last banner rolled up, and the last pot packed on the wagon, the local restaurants set up tables in the square for dinner under the stars. And so we ate grilled sardines, -- a local specialty and one that I wish I could replicate because they were some of the most simply delicious fish I’ve ever eaten, -- and lingered over a beautifully subtle local white wine, watching the children play on the plaza until one by one they dropped in complete exhaustion into their parents’ laps.

As if it were not enough to stay in the authentically rich surroundings of an actual medieval castle, Olite brought the experience to life in a way that could never have been conceived in my expectations. I love paradores.


To find out more about paradores, visit: http://www.paradores-spain.com/

The medieval fair in Olite is held every year in August. This year, it is scheduled for August 20 – 22.

For help planning your trip to Spain, contact Maria Puma at

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Keys to the Kingdom...

And so, with thoughts of Spring’s arrival still fresh, I thought I would meander more into the beautiful world of dining al fresco, bringing to light a few more of my all-time favorites.

Spain. So many places to choose from; so many opportunities to eat in the warm, open air. I can hardly remember a meal indoors in that country. But by far -- and by far, I mean out of the stratosphere, -- the most wonderful was one of the most simple and most unexpected.

Approximately an hour outside Madrid stands one of the most stunningly picturesque towns in a country filled with the stunningly picturesque. Toledo, (pronounced Toe-lay’-doe, unlike its sister city in Ohio) like most small medieval towns that seize the mind and spur the imagination, is a crammed jumble of interlocking streets and alleyways that sits atop a hill encircled by ancient walls. Walking through its portal is like entering a time machine set to the Middle Ages, where buildings, storefronts, and plazas have remained unchanged through the city’s history. One of the local crafts, the famed metalwork of Spain’s illustrious past, can still be seen in the coats of armor, fine swords and elaborate filigree work arranged for sale in the windows and doorways; adding even more to the old world atmosphere.

You can spend an afternoon or a lifetime exploring the winding streets and cracked façades of Toledo, and everywhere you look will be yet another perfect vision: the way a cobblestoned street climbs, curves and then disappears around a bend, luring you around the corner; the textured aging of an imposingly heavy wooden door opening to a flowered courtyard; the way the shadows of the narrow alleys give way to an explosion of sunlight upon entering an open plaza.

But one of the best views of all, is of the city itself. And one of the most striking vantage points lies just on the other side of the scenic Tajo River, strategically set on the patio of the Parador Conde de Orgaz.

Now for those of you who don’t know, the parador is the stuff of fantasy. Paradores are historic buildings: stately manors, pristine monasteries, lush palaces, and even towering castles, that are restored to their former glory and converted into luxury hotels. They dot every town and region throughout Spain, and in each case, add an absolutely unimaginable firsthand experience of culture, architecture, history, and gastronomy in one place. Seriously, haven’t you ever dreamed of living in a castle? In a parador, you can be the prince and princess, the lord and lady, sometimes the sultan and the harem, ahem; but you get the idea. Now that I’m writing this, I realize I will need an entire blog series devoted to paradores, but back to the Conde de Orgaz...

The Conde de Orgaz was an old manor situated on the hill facing Toledo. Perfectly conceived, the grounds here are sprawling and lovely, the kind of place that was just begging for a manor. The fact that this hill is called the Cerro del Emperador, or the Hill of the Emperor, only serves to prove my point.

As you enter, the building has everything your Spanish manor should have: beamed ceilings, decorative tile work, heavy wooden antique furniture that looks like it will outlast another five centuries. And just off the main floor is the perfect patio, surrounded by trees and hills, facing just across the river to Toledo, offering that view worthy of your manor.

This little wonderland allows you to sit even if you are not a guest at the parador, and it offers table service for drinks and light fare. And so, not to disappoint one of my blog followers who recently pointed out that all my blogs tend to lead to tales about food; I will tell you that after a day of touring the sites of Toledo, one does tend to get parched and just a little hungry. And so, light fare and drinks are very much in order.

Sangria, wine mixed with fresh fruit and juice, is Spain’s answer to our iced tea and lemonade. Light and refreshing, it goes down easily, maybe a bit too easily, on a sunny afternoon. It also acts like a chameleon, adding the perfect accent to any type of food, from light tapas, to heavy meats. And as you already know, after a day of touring in the hot sun, you don’t crave heavy fare, but rather something light and easy that will fill you up and satisfy your hunger: Jamon Serrano and Manchego, Spain’s answer to our ham and cheese. Jamon Serrano is preserved ham, much like Italian prosciutto, but not quite as salty and little meatier. Manchego is the king of Spanish cheeses, mild enough not to be overwhelming, but creamy and salty enough to stand on its own.

So here we are, with our perfect little meal, and our perfect little Sangria, on our perfect little patio, with our perfect view of Toledo, spread before us like our own perfect little kingdom. There is no one else there, except for the wonderfully astute and quiet server, who creeps in silently to replenish Sangria or add more cheese. And just as we don’t think it can get any better, the sun starts to set over the town, giving an unearthly light to the stones of the city until it glows.

In that moment, it feels like the world is yours. And when you’re sitting outside your parador, eating delicious foods and sipping delicious drinks, with one of the most beautiful sights in the world at your feet; it is.


For more information on Spain's paradores, or for a consultation on your travels, contact Maria Puma at info@renaissancejourneys.com.

Many thanks to Anita Puma and Lisa Peck for the pictures.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Fruits of Pompeii

After an arduous March, as March tends to be, I am ready to open my arms to the splendors of Spring: the warmth, the sun, the flowers and new life everywhere. In my case, that new life is also realized in the arrival of the newest member of the family, my great nephew (great as in he’s wonderful, and also because he is the first child of my eldest niece). And for those of you wondering, I happened to have been a very young aunt – so I’m not quite ready yet for the polyester and bingo nights…

But I digress. Back to Spring and the beauty it brings to everything. When these days hit, it’s almost sacrilegious to remain indoors, and my husband and I are finding more and more reasons to be outside, including a lavish and beautiful picnic in Central Park last Friday. And like many moments in my life, the bliss of that moment brought to mind other times and places…

Pompeii, city of mystery and melancholy; where you walk through the streets and thoroughfares and can’t help but connect with the ancient citizens and wonder what you might have been doing on the day Vesuvius erupted: how would you have reacted? would you have survived? It is a chilling place, but also wondrous as you walk down Roman roads trodden for centuries by countless visitors, enter Roman villas with elaborately whimsical frescos, and see mundane signs of everyday life: herb gardens, decorative statuettes, and even graffiti. But the one thing you won’t see in Pompeii is a decent place to eat.

It’s a common mistake that most tourists make. Everywhere else in Europe, from the most visited site to the most far-reaching little landmark, inevitably has a snack bar, a food stand, a restaurant, and a chintzy but fun souvenir stand. In the vast expanse of the excavations of the entire city of Pompeii, there is only one cafeteria; and after walking through the captivating remains of the ancient world and marveling at the grandeur of Rome, it’s more than a little disappointing to have standard tourist fare that is far less than epic. The juxtaposition of the hard modern seats in a darkened, stagnant room, with bland, lifeless food, when the magnificence of the ancient world stands outside, all around you, is almost as tragic as the city’s destruction.

This is why one of the best tips to my Renaissance Journeys clients is to pack a picnic lunch when heading for the day to Pompeii. Whether driving or taking the train, it takes about 15 minutes to stop in the shops in the modern city of Pompeii, just outside the main gateway. Here you can delve into the culture and feel like a local, with short visits to the bakery, the deli, and the fruit stand – and you’re in Southern Italy here, so this is the stuff. (Don’t worry if you don’t speak Italian. Many of these shop owners are well versed in English, and if not, a smile and a finger point will take you a long way).

Now remember, in Italy, there’s no such thing as a 7/11, so you can’t go to just one place and have them make a sandwich – (Well you can, but it’s cheating. You can go to the local bar and have them wrap ready-made sandwiches for you, and they won’t be bad, but they won’t be as good). So to truly shop and eat like a local, you go to a number of different specialty shops and put your lunch together. I normally start with the deli (or salumeria), and load up on salamis, because there is no hunger in life that can’t be satisfied by a truly good Italian salami. From hot to sweet, they’ll have it all, just remember to have them slice it for you, because you can’t bring a knife into the area of the excavations.

Then you can add a few local cheeses. I always look for those I haven’t tried before, just to give me the feel for the local flavors that are so characteristic to each region in Italy. (If you ask nicely, shopkeepers will even let you taste them to make sure you like it). Again, have them slice it for you. Also, glance around the shop to see what else they’re selling, and if it looks good, it probably is; so add it to the bag and then it’s on to the next place.

Now in Italy, every self-respecting salumeria is right next to the bakery (or forno) and a good fruit stand or shop, and Pompeii is no exception. On the same street, you’ll find a great forno where you can go and pick your bread. If you’re a little particular and you want it cut just right, they’ll do it for you. But if you’re me, there is nothing like ripping a piece of freshly baked bread, so I usually get a long loaf. They’ll also have small breads for sandwiches (or panini – and by the way, the singular of panini is panino, – a pet peeve of mine in American “Italian” restaurants). Now the bakery should also have some nice little sweets or cookies. Feel free to load up on a few for dessert. After all, this is going to be a long day of walking, so any additional calories will be completely cancelled out by a run up the steps of the great amphitheatre. You’re covered.

Then it’s on to the fruit shop. I normally get some tomatoes for my sandwich, but beware that this isn’t for the faint of heart. You can’t have them sliced because they’ll just mush up in the pack; and you can’t bring a knife into the site with you. Being half-Sicilian, my hands can be used as a knife and can surprisingly slice a tomato quite cleanly and efficiently with no assistance whatsoever. If you don’t have that gene, then you might want to skip the tomato; but remember, you’re in Southern Italy, and the fruit here is food for the gods. You won’t get figs, peaches, berries, or any other fruit for that matter that is as good as it’s grown here, so be sure to get a few of your favorites.

Now you’ve got your lunch, but you still don’t have the pièce de la resistance. Remember that bar I talked about? Well, you’ll want to go there now and pick yourself out a nice bottle of local wine. If you like white, you can get one that is chilled here. And if red is more your game, they’ll have plenty of choices. Be sure to ask them to open it up for you before you leave, as the same rule of the knife in Pompeii holds true for a corkscrew. (Besides, even if you brought a corkscrew on your trip, what are the chances that you actually remembered to bring it with you from the hotel?) Remember to recork the bottle and store it safely in your bags to prevent spillage. It might seem like a hassle, but believe me, you’ll be happy you did.

And finally, you’ll also want to bring a few large bottles of water with you. You can get them at the bar, again chilled, and you’ll need it for all that wine. Also, the ruins are vast, and the days get hot in Pompeii, so without any convenient snack bars or stands in the ruins, you’re mostly on your own for water. And you don’t really want to drink from the water fountains there – trust me. So bring plenty of water and keep hydrated. (You’ll also want to wash your fruit with it, so save some for that).

And what, you may ask, are you expected to carry all this stuff in? If you’ve got a backpack or two, a bike bag, or some other comfortable sac, bring it with you. I normally bring one or two backpacks so that I can distribute the weight among a few people; but if not, the stores will provide bags; and it is allowed to bring backpacks and small bags inside the ruins. One last note, even if you’ve brought your own sacs, remember to get a few of the bags from the shops anyway, as you will need these later to either store leftovers or throw out your trash. And please remember to deposit your trash in a receptacle. There is nothing worse than touring one of the most beautiful sites of the ancient world and seeing a very modern bottle or bag sticking out like an eyesore, ruining the view and that perfect picture you were hoping to get.

Once you’re inside the excavations, you will be captivated as you walk the streets of the Romans, noting the worn strips in the stones where wagons once passed; touring ancients homes from the most modest rooms to the stateliest villas; passing by the ancient shops mimicking the ones you’ve just visited: the forno, the olive oil stand, the tavern; and of course, lingering in the majestic buildings of the Forum, the heart of the ancient city, lined with the remains of temples and governments buildings that once embodied the greatness of Rome. All the time, the sun that shone on Pompeian citizens so long ago will warm you; you’ll hear the voices of the past speak to you, your throat will be parched and lined with the dust of the old city, and you’ll be ready for your lunch.

You will find many breathtaking spots calling out to you. The small theatre is one of my favorites as there’s seating room and room to spread out your lunch. Afterwards, it is not impossible that I will be coaxed to go onstage and recite a poem or sing. You might find that refreshing wine on a sunny day does that to you, so you might want to prepare a little something. Sometimes passersby will even join in. But if the theatre is not your thing, there are so many other areas to choose from that you will be sure to find the perfect spot: in the grass among the flowers, under the arcade of the gladiators’ barracks, against the ruins of the temple of Hera; wherever you’re hungry and inspired.

I never send a client to Pompeii without this advice; and so far, every one of them has returned and told me that this moment, sitting on a dazzlingly sunny day against the backdrop of Roman ruins, with a glass of wine and hearty local fare shared among family, friends, and lovers, was the most memorable moment of the trip.

Where is your favorite picnic spot?


For more information on Pompeii, or a consultation on your travels, contact Maria Puma at info@renaissancejourneys.com.

Pictures courtesy of Laura Puma.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Time in Ruins

There is nothing like visiting ancient ruins that seem to have no bearing whatsoever in your life, and then finding something there that is so mundane, so universally normal, that in one instant the past is connected to the present. A carving, a word, a coin, a fragment, becomes a moment of shared experience. It is a form of communication that is eternal and it is what brings ancient sites alive.

Malta is practically littered with ruins. In fact, there are so many, and surprisingly, they are so rarely visited, that in the same day, we saw the same custodian three different times at three different sites. I asked him if he knew where we’d be later that evening because he seemed to psychically predict our every move.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, some of these ancient sites predate Stonehenge by millennia, and have a range of appeal from the oldest, to the ones that overlook the sea, to the ones with the most artifacts. Many of them are so wonderfully preserved, they still have standing arches, shrines that still await the faithful, and pathways that are worn with the footsteps of countless unknown people. But what stopped me in my tracks were those small touches, those moments when I came to an understanding of the people who inhabited these mystical places: beautiful and intricate decorative carvings and statues that like most ancient artwork, depict figures in positions and behaviors that are quintessentially human.

Everyone who knows me well, knows that I appreciate a good rest. The Beatles “I’m only sleeping” is a personal mantra and I think, a strong statement to live by. So imagine my surprise and overwhelming satisfaction when I found that the most famous statue from the ancient people of Malta was the figure of a sleeping woman. So touching in her simplicity, she is immortalized in that state that I love best. She’s just a small statuette, dating from 3600 – 2500 BC, almost post-modern in her stylized, curvaceous form, and she is surrounded by mystery. What exactly does she depict? Was she an actual person of note or just a simple representation? She lies on her side, a smile on her face, in restful slumber forever. But whether she was a noblewoman or just a regular person; whether depicting sleep or a metaphor of deeper meaning; for me, she acts as a connection with the distant past, bringing with her the age old knowledge that no matter who you are or what your hopes, dreams, or trials; a good sleep will always rank among the world’s greatest and most restorative pleasures. If I were to be immortalized, that is probably the state that would best represent me.

How would you be remembered?


For a glimpse of the Sleeping Lady, log onto: http://www.heritagemalta.org/museums/museums.html and select the National Museum of Archaeology. Just above the title, you’ll see an icon of a vase. When you click on it, it will bring you to the museum’s collections, and the first one of all, is my “Sleeping Lady”.

For more information on Malta's ancient sites, you can log onto: www.visitmalta.com.

My absolute favorites were:

The Hypogeum, an underground temple and burial site that is beautifully preserved and maintained;

Mnajdra, which overlooks the sea;

The Tarxien Temples, which have the best preserved carvings and artwork.

If you’d like more information on Malta, just post a question or comment. And stay tuned for more blogs on new destinations …

Friday, February 19, 2010

Malta's Magic

There is nothing quite as inspiring to the imagination as a great marina; boats lined along arcing shores, filled with the promise of exploration and intrigue. Nantucket’s marinas embody its shores like a skyline defines a great city. The marina of Naples is immortalized in countless heart-wrenching songs. Coastlines on the Mediterranean are dotted with rustic medieval villages and busy thoroughfares sprouted from great marinas. Trade, prosperity, cultural exchange, and indeed, progress itself are the natural fulfillment of thriving marinas. But nowhere in the world is the marina raised to the level of art form as in Malta. Set on gracious walkways with room to sit and linger over sweeping views to the sea beyond, Malta’s marinas grace every town and are the center of cultural activity, with bustling marketplaces, hot restaurant scenes, and almost daily local festivals.

The characteristic boats of Malta decorate its shores with astonishing colors, like gemstones gleaming on a brilliant crown. Said to date back to the time of the Phoenicians, these simple fishing boats are as beautiful as they are functional, with elegantly curved bodies ending in the accentuated points of bows that cut through the sea with the utmost grace and efficiency. These boats do not bore the seascape with the washed-out, unimaginative colors of simple whites or battered grays; but rather challenge the very blue of the Mediterranean with an array of hues from turquoise to cobalt, and highlights in sunny yellows, cheerful oranges, or taunting reds. Unchanged for centuries, possibly even millennia, each fishing boat still marks its bow with a small but noticeable pair of stylized eyes, wide and colorful, and offset by harshly dark outlines, they stare out from the front of the boat, lifelike, guiding the way on its passage. Legend holds that these are representations of the mythical eyes of Isis, believed to protect the boats from harm; a testament to Malta’s ever-enduring connection to the Sea.

My husband and I went to Malta, for the same reason that Everest was climbed, because it was there; and so we took a side trip from our visit to Sicily to spend some time exploring this new place. Although many Europeans, especially the British, have flocked to Malta for its island appeal of fine beaches, resorts and nightlife; my husband and I actually delved into its unique and fascinating history. Known for its association with the Templar knights, I half expected to find myself in a Dan Brown novel searching for the one true grail; so I was a bit surprised to find that the Templars didn’t arrive in Malta until the 16th century. Instead of the medieval hamlets with heavily carved stonework and looming gothic figures that I had envisioned, I was met with charming baroque cities, all uniform in a delicate sand color, with intricate decorations around balconied windows and ornate doorways.

In a culture dominated by the historic protectors of the church, of course there are churches -- many churches -- dripping with evidence of legendary riches. Dramatic in their abundance and overwhelming in their opulence, each church is crammed full with towering altar pieces in sterling silver and heavy drapery in red and gold silks and velvets. Most striking of all, surrounding each imposing structure are myriad statues of church figures, depicted in colorful robes and adorned with crowns and staffs of gold, with unexpected and slightly disturbing painted faces gazing out in stern judgment or divine ecstasy. Most churches are situated right along the shore, blessing Malta’s union with the sea, but even those churches that are further away, soar to heights that allow all to view them from any vantage point, basking in their protection and in the confidence that God is never far from the seafaring.

And with a culture so driven by its ties to the church, there are festivals -- one for practically every day of the week, -- when these already ornate churches are hyper-decorated with finery and silver; the streets overflowing and the marinas alive with vivid decorations, sweet local delicacies, and merry traditional music. Locals fill the streets, and the celebrations last well into the night, long after the church procession has ended and the last of the fireworks has reflected in the sea.

We also found a culture that stretched way back to pre-history, not surprising for a land forever at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, with sites so old, they make Stonehenge look like a newcomer to the ancient scene. These sites are better preserved than any other sites of their age, with ancient carvings and statuettes that look surprisingly post-modern in their stylized simplicity. The most dramatic of these stand against the sea, another reminder of Malta’s close and never-ending relationship with the Mediterranean.

Wherever we went, whatever town we visited or site we toured, we came back each time to the marina. Each town has one, and each one is absolutely breathtaking in its delicate embrace with the sea. There are upscale marinas that cater to wealthy yachters looking for a playground; there are rustic marinas overflowing with those distinct fishing boats and markets showcasing the day’s freshest catch; there are trendy marinas with fashionable cafés or restaurants taking advantage of the dazzling sunsets; and there are quiet, more remote marinas with enchanting views and a few benches to sit and linger.

Even our hotel offered views of either the sea or the marina. The sea view was unavailable to us our first night, so we were actually considering changing rooms the second night; until we sat on our balcony over the marina with a bottle of wine and watched the lights change on the water as the boats gently lapped against their restraints, aching to venture out again into that welcoming and mysterious sea. We decided that nothing could compare to that view, and so we kept that room for the rest of our stay.

In Malta, there are marinas everywhere -- because the country is made up of islands; because every small town there has faced the sea throughout history; because the culture and survival of the Maltese has always depended on it; and because it is the only way to truly honor their long and enduring bond with the sea. To understand this, is to understand Malta.


Malta is not an easy destination to get to, as there are no direct flights from the U.S. It is sometimes included on cruise itineraries; but the best way to get there is to add it to another destination in Europe. There are direct flights from Milan, Sicily, France, London and other points in Europe. If you’d like more information on Malta, just post a question or comment.

For more quick info on Malta and its sites, stay tuned for more blogs in the next few weeks…

Have you been inspired by a marina? Where is your favorite and how did it affect you?