8/26-8/30, Valetta, Malta

Much longer writeup and pictures coming (pictures are a much less convenient process with the Chromebook than the Mac), but the short story is that Malta is great. Valetta is beautiful and vibrant – imagine if Del Mar or La Jolla were 5000+ years old and included some huge stately walls and plazas. That’s Valetta. Clean, civilized and picturesque. More to come.

So far we’ve seen several cities in Malta – Valetta, Rabat, Mdina (not misspelled), and a UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_c0d7.jpglittle bit of Sliema. Valetta is far and away our favorite, but Mdina was pretty nice too. Mdina, a fortress city totally encased in the beautiful Maltese yellow limestone, reminded us a lot of the French city Carcassone.

Maltese traffic is quite a bit better (dense but much less crazy) than Sicilian, but I’m still glad I’m not driving. Lots of compound roundabouts and driving on the left thanks to Malta being under the influence of the British Empire for many years. We’ve bought a weekly bus pass, and the buses are OK. Pretty crowded and the passage of choice for lots of Maltese people.

Our big day trip on the 29th was an excursion to the island of Comino and the famous Blue Lagoon. The destination was nice but crowded, and it wasn’t even a weekend. The Lagoon itself would have been spectacular in a less crowded, more unspoiled context, but with crowds of tourists (I know, we’re guilty) and lots of them jostling for a spot on the rocks and dropping cigarette butts everywhere (not guilty on this count), it wasn’t the experience we had hoped for. If we ever did it again we’d hire a more private boat, get there faster and have some say in where we disembarked to swim.

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But after four days in Valetta we’re very happy with this part of our trip. There’s a lot to be said for getting settled into a place for a week or more, assuming the place is OK. And our boutique hotel, The Cumberland, is very comfortable. Might even be considered “posh”. Highly recommended.

8/22-24, Palermo, Sicily

Palermo has been a complete surprise. I was ready to be underwhelmed based on Palermo’s online reputation, but I was wrong. I like Palermo quite a bit. An incredibly rich history, beautiful hybrid Moorish and Norman architecture, surprisingly nice artwork and great stories about every place in the Old Town.

Admittedly, the bar was pretty low. Catania has few positives, so the generalization one does led to low expectations. But Palermo was relatively cleaner, relatively safer feeling and had a much stronger sense of history than Catania.

Our BnB was in an area that at first glance looked to be a huge mistake. But inside it was spotless, architecturally interesting and hosted by wonderful people. And it was central to everywhere we wanted to walk and visit.

We visited several palaces, cathedrals, piazzas, gardens and landmarks all in a 15 minute walking radius from our BnB. Pretty sweet. The car has stayed garaged the entire time, aka no stress.

One big surprise in Palermo is that truly good wine is hard to find. Most restaurants serve Nero D’Avola and Grillo (red and white Sicilian varietals) exclusively. Pretty much just chilled table wine. While we had a great bottle from an excellent wine list  in Catania, that restaurant seems to be the exception. We hope for better in Malta.

We took a bike tour of the Old Town that was a lot of fun. Learned a lot, saw a lot and got a tiny bit of exercise. Bikes are definitely a great way to get around these crazy streets. We’ve seen some electric bikes that are pretty cool.

The palace and cathedral tours were impressive. Palermo isn’t Florence, but it’s trending that direction. I was really impressed with the history of Palermo, all encoded in the buildings and museums. Turns out that all the Crusader movies we’ve all seen take place here in southern Italy and Sicily in particular. This was the most contested area of the war 500-year religious war between the Normans and the Arabs. We’ll have to watch some of those movies again with our newfound appreciation for Palermo in mind.

Tomorrow we travel back to Malta for the final leg of our Euro trip. We hope it will be relaxing, and there we meet up with our friends Todd and Tania.

Damning With Faint Praise

I’ve thought quite a bit about what to write about Catania, Sicily. Getting right to the point, we didn’t like it much and won’t be back. But rather than focusing on the negative, I’ll write about the high points of our three day stay in Catania.

First, all the service people we encountered were very polite and professional – the people working in restaurants, the B&B and even in the crazy car rental agency. It’s curious to see how different people are in professional settings from the everyday people driving cars and in the streets. There has to be some overlap, but…it was like two different populations. Go figure.

Another highlight of this part of our trip was a guided Jeep trip up the 11,000 foot high Mt. Etna, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_bb40Beautiful views, an interesting and very knowledgeable guide and some unique experiences like creeping through a lava tube. I now know a LOT more about vulcanology than before, and Mt. Etna is a great place to learn it. We had a great evening with our guide and a couple of nice folks from Holland.The featured image at the top of this post is of our guide standing on a lava flow. And on the left we have our intrepid crew standing in a caldera most of the way up the volcano.

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The final positive on our Catania stay was a spectacular restaurant, L’ Horloge, meaning The Clock in French. Simply superb food, great service and atmosphere and an excellent wine list. I selected a Mt. Etna-produced red, a 2010 Aglianico that was perfectly balanced and tasty. Add to that UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_be7c.jpgthe best caprese salad ever and some perfect risotto. We liked it so much we came back a second night for the caprese. We liked L’Horloge much more than the reviewers on Tripadvisor.

There were very few scenic views on our strolls around Catania. We took lots of photos but came away with very few worth sharing – it’s just not what I would call a “scenic” city. One nice scene was this shot of an alley filled with restaurants and decorated in an interesting way (oddly, we saw exactly the same scene/decoration in the NuLu area of Louisville. I’m guessing Catania was first.

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So that’s it for our first three days in Sicily. Palermo comes next. In closing I will say that driving in Sicily continues to be terrifying. Part of it may be that I’m just older than in previous European driving experiences, but I think that’s a minor factor. The streets, cars, cycles and drivers in Sicily are simply crazed. There are no rules other than aggression – it’s like one big Mad Max race. So we’ve changed our plans and will garage the car once we arrive in Palermo, using it only to get back to the airport. Live and learn, I suppose. Ciao.

 

A Hard Day’s Night

After 24 hours of travel (!!), we’re finally ensconced in our lovely (jury’s still out on that) hotel in Catania, Sicily. Our route was complicated and ultimately brutal. Louisville to Chicago Midway to Chicago O’Hare to Frankfurt, Germany to Valetta, Malta to Catania, Sicily. Five trips through airport security and/or customs; three of them without TSA Pre. And the Europeans want every single electronic device out of the bag – cameras, pads, computers, phones, battery packs…and I’ve got multiples of all of them. I’ve finally found the hard downside of being a device hoarder.

Things were actually pretty good until we got to Catania. We felt like we were at the finish line, only a car rental and a 5 mile trip to the hotel ahead of us. After 22-ish travel hours, those two small tasks took us over 3 hours. The car rental was the worst I’ve ever seen. Avis’ systems were down in Catania, so everything was being done with much shouting, gesticulation and the approvals of a few managers who managed to be in the wrong place pretty much always. Two hours to rent a car.

And you’d think it wouldn’t take long to drive the five miles to our hotel. Turns out I’ve 110% underestimated the craziness of Sicilian roads. I tried to puzzle the route out with a paper map, but that was (a) dangerous and (b) futile. My big Plan B was to use the Nav system of the BMW 318 we had rented (a bright spot there) and just let it take us to the hotel, but we got to the rental car and found that its menu system was in Russian. Or Polish. Or something Cyrillic.

Twenty minutes later the Avis rep had successfully changed the menu system back to English. So we entered the address and followed the route.

In my wildest dreams I could not have gotten to the hotel without technology assistance. The car took us through some roads I couldn’t believe. I don’t have any pictures yet – photography is on a completely different level on the hierarchy of needs I’ve been on today – but suffice to say I’m not impressed with my first drives around Catania.

Making matters worse, K has not fared well on our marathon travel day. Migraine and stomach problems make for a miserable day on top of all the strenuous travel. So I feel terrible for her.

This may be the whiniest weblog post I’ve ever written. Sorry about that. Perhaps tomorrow with some sleep and a new outlook Sicily will look and feel better. But first impressions are a big deal, and this one was/is pretty bad. Ciao!

Update and footnote: I’ve broken a basic social media security rule with this post, letting readers know we’re away from home. Typically a terrible idea. But in this case (a) my readership is restricted to about four family members, (b) we have workers at the house every day (putting the final-final touches on the new fire suppression system) and (c) we have our Special Forces-trained and well-armed nephew staying at the place while we’re gone. So I’m not too worried about an opportunistic break-in.

The featured image at the top of this post is from where we should have stayed, in Taormina at the coast. Catania is/was nothing like this.

Best of Cabo

This post may take a while to get right, but it’ll be fun looking through all the years of photos and getting the best ones. We’ve been to Cabo almost every year for the last 16 years or so. For example, the photo above is from 2003 when we took Emily and her friend Amber with us. The picture was taken at Cabo Wabo, Sammi Hagar’s somewhat infamous bar.

The town itself has changed a lot but the core values of Cabo remains the same – the beautiful ocean and beaches, the great cuisine and the relaxing atmosphere (if you’re selective about where you stay). We’ve managed to snag a great oceanfront room for our annual stay – very private and walk right out onto the beach. Definitely something to look forward to.

So…look for new pictures on this post every day or two. It will take a while to sort through them.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2a50.jpgThis picture, also taken in 2003, is one of my all-time favorites. It was taken with a Canon Powershot G2 with a 4 megapixel sensor. It’s taken from a sunset cruise (doh) and I got the sailboat just right. The coloring of the sky isn’t great, but…that’s the way it was. That’s another constant about Cabo – spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

This next picture is from 2005 and shows the beach where we stay even now. It’s also a great picture of my beautiful wife and traveling partner Kathryn. The camera was once again the venerable Canon G2.

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This next picture is one of our favorites. We both look as young and happy as we were. Still happy, but 20 years older. Time flies…

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This next pictures are more recent, from Feb 2018. We were on our annual panga-fishing expedition (a panga is a small boat, not a fish). In a panga you only go a mile or less UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_a8fd.jpgoffshore, never out of sight of land. We typically catch mahi, yellowtail, roosterfish, dorado, etc. Everything we catch we eat, and we eat like kings for three days or so after a good outing.

Feb 13 was an auspicious day right from the start, as you can see in this stunning sunrise as we left the marina. On this day we hooked something quite unexpected – a sizable marlin. It took me 45 minutes to land him. This was by far the largest fish I’ve ever caught, and as I’m not inclined to go deep sea fishing it likely will remain my record.

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And true to form we had piles of fresh fish for the next few days. We gifted half the marlin to the boat captain, then we commissioned about 20 pounds to be smoked and UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_a90efrozen, and we kept about 6-7 pounds to eat fresh. We had heard that marlin wasn’t a great fish to eat, but that is 100% wrong. It was spectacular as sushi/sashimi, poached, fried – every way we tried it. So Mr. Marlin fed a lot of people.

YTAxgWc5R3W8n++53XMJNw_thumb_a14e.jpgFinal thoughts on this post – there are just too many great pictures and memories for a single blog post. So here’s one more picture from our Cabo adventures and I’ll plan to do a “Best of Cabo 2” sometime in the future. This is a spectacular sunset view from our condo with yours truly silhouetted in the frame. Definitely looking forward to getting back there next February.

Traveling to the Moon

Image above courtesy of NASA. Image Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University, published October 29, 2018. It’s a GIF of the Apollo 11 landing site moving from dusk till dawn.

I’ve been doing a lot of research on the Moon lately for a little project of mine. I thought I’d share some surprising and fun facts about it just in case you or someone you know gets a chance to travel there. (I know, extremely wishful thinking.)

  • The Moon is abnormally large for a planetary satellite. It’s larger than Pluto, for example. It’s 25% of the size of Earth, by far the largest percentage satellite in our solar system.
  • The Moon really does spin, but we only see one side of it because it’s spin rate is exactly the same as its rate of revolution around Earth. This is called tidal locking.
  • There is ice on the Moon. No one knows how much, but you can bet that when we do colonize the Moon it will be a precious resource.
  • Temperatures on the Moon are harsh. 260 degrees F in the sunlight and minus 280 degrees F in the shadow. This is exactly what Earth would be like without our nurturing atmosphere.
  • Having said that, there is actually oxygen on the Moon! The moon’s small mass and low gravity  prevents it from keeping hold of even a tenuously thin atmosphere. But oxygen needn’t exist only in gaseous form above the ground. It can also be entrained safely in certain kinds of rocks. Gather the rubble and either treat it with chemicals or blast it with heat, and you can free up unlimited quantities of oxygen both for breathing and for rocket fuel.
  • The side of the moon that perpetually faces Earth is known as the near side. The opposite or “back” side is the far side. Sometimes the far side is called the “dark side of the moon”, but this is inaccurate. When the moon is between the Earth and the sun, during the new moon phase, the back side of the moon is bathed in daylight.

One more fun thought. In my eleven years working for a certain energy company in San Diego I traveled approximately 200,000 miles on my daily drives. Not quite enough to get to the Moon (240,000 miles away), but pretty impressive nonetheless.