Eat like a local in Venice

Don’t spoil your visit to Venice by eating in over-priced tourist traps – follow the locals’ lead and graze on bar snacks in back-street osterie

The Guardian,

Venice, Cantinone-già Schiavi

One going begging … nibbles in the atmospheric Cantinone-già Schiavi.
My trip to one of the world’s most romantic cities was inspired by the least romantic of situations: a boys’ night out in Soho, London, the kind that ends up in a random curry house before falling asleep on the night bus. On this night, however, we fell, quite by chance, into Polpo (see Jay Rayner’s review), a relatively new restaurant that appeared to be some kind of tapas bar, was lively and not too pricey – yes, this would do.

It was an inspired choice. It turns out we weren’t eating tapas (“We don’t use the T-word here,” said the waiter) but cichèti, small snacks unique to the bars of Venice. Our conversation, usually dominated by football, turned to the tenderness of sliced flank steak and the sweet softness of the sensational cuttlefish cooked in its own ink.

On more than 20 visits to Venice, Polpo owner Russell Norman has trawled the back-street bàcari, the small bars where locals pop in for a glass of wine and a snack, to find inspiration for Polpo. He is the right man to talk to about where to eat in what he calls “one of the world’s worst destinations for food lovers”.

“Avoid all the crappy tourist places,” is Norman’s advice, “anywhere with the menu in six languages stuck in the window or, worse still, one with photographs of lurid pizzas.

“But there is still a side of Venice which is alive and isn’t Disneyland, and it’s best typified by the bàcari.”

With those words ringing in my ears, and a list of his favourite bàcari in my pocket, I headed off for La Serenissima.

Venice, La Cantina Cutting edge … La Cantina. Photograph: Gavin McOwan A bar crawl, or giro di òmbre, is the best way to try Venice’s bàcari, popping into each for a cichèti and accompanying òmbra (small glass of wine). And a good place to start was Ca’ d’Oro – Alla Vedova (Cannaregio 3912, Ramo Ca’ d’Oro), one of the best-known bàcari, on the Strada Nuova, well away from the city’s touristy hub. On a Friday night it was packed with punters lingering around the bar, waiting for the hot polpette (pork rissoles) to emerge from the kitchen. These delicious balls of salty, finely minced pork (the inspiration for the meatballs at Polpo) were snapped up within seconds of hitting the old marble bar counter, washed down by unbottled Veneto red in tiny glasses. Both cost €1 a pop.

Around the corner is La Cantina (Cannaregio 3689, Campo San Felice) which, like Polpo, has taken the simple cichèto to another level with its freshly prepared, imaginative dishes. On the bar was a tray of oysters on ice (€9 for six), which the barman shucked to order, behind it a counter of fresh fish and an ancient hand-operated slicer for the charcuterie, and on the blackboard around 30 wines available by the glass. But, like all bàcari, La Cantina didn’t run to anything as tourist-friendly as a menu. When I asked for one, the barman replied, “It’s me!”

Raw fish is a speciality, and my trio of minced salmon, lightly seared tuna with finely chopped cucumber and sea bass (€2 each) with tomatoes, prepared right in front of me, were melt-in-the-mouth fresh – the best thing I ate in Venice.

Venice , All'Arco Market leader … All’Arco. Photograph: Andrea Matone/Alamy
Across the iconic Rialto bridge, on the other side of the Grand Canal and tucked down an alleyway, is tiny All’ Arco (Calle Arco, San Polo 436, lunchtime only). On a Saturday lunchtime this friendly bàcaro was heaving with shoppers from the nearby Rialto market, which sells a stunning selection of fresh fish and remains a favourite meeting place for Venetians. Plates of cichèti on the bar – langoustines, calamari, liver, speck and prawns, all served on slices of bread – were tasty enough, but what the owner Francesco Pinto was preparing behind it looked even more appetising. The hot sandwich of boiled beef sausages (which, he gesticulated, are made from the meat in the cow’s head) served with mustard was the perfect winter comfort food.

Around the corner is Do Mori (San Polo 429, Calle dei Do Mori), said to be the oldest bàcaro in Venice, dating back to 1462, with a dark wood interior and copper pots hanging from the ceiling. The house speciality is francobollo (literally “postage stamp”), a tiny white-bread sandwich filled with sliced meats, radicchio, gorgonzola or roasted vegetables. This Venetian institution is an obligatory stop on the giro di òmbre, yet the atmosphere is solemn, the staff seemingly forbidden to smile at customers. When I mentioned this attitude to a bunch of friendly Italians from out of town enjoying a lunchtime bar crawl, one of them said: “Don’t take it personally. When we order [in some bàcari] they reply in Venetian dialect, to remind us this is not Italy, we’re on the island of Venice.”

This fortress mentality is understandable given that these proud, mostly working-class establishments have made a conscious decision to reject the easy tourist dollar to continue serving a loyal but diminishing clientele. There are just 60,000 inhabitants left in the city, but it receives more than 16.5 million tourists a year.
Venice, Cantinone-già Schiavi exterior Water to wine … Cantinone-già Schiavi.
Opposite Cantinone–già Schiavi (992 Ponte San Trovaso), located on a canal in Dorsoduro, is another symbol of disappearing Venice: one of the city’s last gondola workshops. Schiavi is really a wine shop that sells food on the side – although the cheese and fennel crostini were delicious. The walls are covered floor to ceiling by bottles, and there is a fantastic choice of 10 or so wines by the glass, mostly from the Veneto region, starting at €2. That, I noted, was the same price as the house, so I made a pest of myself and started to work through the labels (well, the glasses are tiny).

Venice is notorious for its lack of nightlife, but a good place to end a bar crawl is Campo Santa Margarita, the hangout for local and international students. Ai Do Draghi, at the north end of the square and known as the red house as much for its political leaning as for the colour of the facade, was swarming when I arrived. Like me, the cichèti were looking a little tired and dog-eared by late evening, so I ended the night with their excellent spritz, the classic Venetian cocktail (whose recipe Norman admits to nicking for Polpo).

Staggering back to my hotel I got lost for the umpteenth time. But then this, as much as the wine and the food, is the beauty of the bar crawl – it takes you through the medieval alleyways and floating magic of this amazing city.

British Airways (0844 4930787) flies to Venice Marco Polo from Gatwick from £95 rtn inc taxes, and from Heathrow from £136. Expedia (0871 226 0808) offers three nights B&B at the Hotel Gorizia A La Valigia from £214pp, or three nights at the waterfront Best Western Albergo San Marco from £204. Polpo (41 Beak Street London W1, +44 (0) 20-7734 4479).

Free and easy ways to stay connected from Europe by Rick Steeves

Tribune Media Services

If you take a computer when you travel to Europe, there are programs that let you call home for free -- even with two-way video.

If you take a computer when you travel to Europe, there are programs that let you call home for free — even with two-way video.
When I was a gawky teenager, my parents took me to Europe, broadened my horizon, and changed my life. After I graduated high school, I was ready to travel to Europe on my own, but my parents were nervous. To earn their blessing, I had to make two promises: I wouldn’t go to Turkey (because they were worried I’d be sold into the white slave trade) and I’d write home every other day. My dad figured that if the postcards stopped coming, at least he’d know where to begin looking.

Today, it’s a new world. When my kids travel to Europe, I can track them down instantly on their cellphones. What’s even more remarkable, if we both use a computer, I can see them while we talk — usually at no cost to either of us.

Over the last few years, there’s been a revolution in long-distance communication that makes it easier and cheaper than ever for travelers to stay in touch. Take your laptop or netbook to Europe, hook up to a fast Internet connection, and you can talk to people around the world — for free. This technology, called Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), can save you a lot of money on calls home from Europe.

At first, I was reluctant to try VoIP, but now I’m a believer. In fact, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to embrace technology more vigorously in the interest of using my time more smartly … and VoIP is not only smart, it’s free.

The company called Skype ( is the dominant provider of VoIP, but other companies (including Google Talk, work in much the same way. To get started, you visit the Web site to download the free application and to register. Once you’re signed up, you can talk online via your computer to a buddy with a computer running the same program. If both of you have Webcams, you can see each other while you chat. All of this is free.

Skype (which is a shortened form of “sky peer to peer”) also works for making calls from your computer to telephones worldwide. In this case it’s not free, but the rates are very reasonable (generally less than you’d pay with a long-distance telephone plan). I can sit at my computer at home, using Skype to call phone numbers all over Europe to reserve hotels for my whole trip, quickly and affordably. And when I’m in Europe, if I’m traveling with my Skype-enabled laptop, I can get online and make calls home — or call ahead to confirm tomorrow’s hotel — for pennies a minute.

With Skype, you can also buy a phone number in your home country that links to your computer wherever you are traveling. Your grandma makes a “local phone call” in Omaha, and you “pick up” on your laptop in Barcelona. While this all has to be set up online, it’s fairly user-friendly and can save you a bundle on a long trip.

Again, computer-to-computer calls are always free — no matter where in the world you are — and the sound quality is generally at least as good as a standard phone connection (although the video can be choppy). The program uses your computer’s built-in speakers, Webcam, and microphone, if it has them. If your computer lacks a microphone, or if you want to improve the voice and sound quality, you can buy an operator-type headset for around $20. A cheap Webcam also costs about $20.

You can use VoIP even if you’re traveling without a computer. Many European Internet cafes already have Skype, as well as microphones and Webcams, built into their machines — you just need to log on and chat away. But remember that the service works well only if both parties have a high-speed Internet connection.

What about those of us who carry a mobile phone to Europe instead of a computer? Increasingly, you can even use VoIP from certain Internet-enabled smartphones (such as the iPhone), bypassing the expensive rates mobile-phone companies charge for international calls. A Skype app is available for some smartphones, or you can use a third-party service such as, which works as a kind of Skype-to-mobile-phone gateway. Even the iPod Touch — which isn’t designed as a phone — can be used to make Skype calls to computers or phones, if you have an external microphone and a Wi-Fi connection.

Tech-savvy travelers should do some homework before their trip to fully understand these ever-evolving options.

Even if you’re not using VoIP, it’s worth knowing about because of its increasing popularity in Europe. If you travel like a local, it’s only a matter of time before a new European friend who wants to keep in touch will ask you, “Do you use Skype?” You’ll have broader horizons.

Edmonds-based Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio.
His column runs weekly at
E-mail him at

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Expensive Cities on the Cheap

Strategies for navigating notoriously pricey cities like Honolulu, London, New York, and Tokyo, along with unique experiences in each that won’t cost you a penny.

By Tim Leffel, Monday, Oct 20, 2008, 2:18 PM 

Big Ben and the London skyline
Big Ben and the London skyline (Goodshoot/Corbis)

At about $5 for a pint and $8 for a single Tube ride, that London pub crawl is going to cost you. But London does have a better choice of hotels in all ranges than most other European capitals, and most of its
fantastic museums are always free.

The foot of Powell Street in San Francisco is a downtown transportation hub (Phil Coblentz/San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau)

To find other bargains, go to the Budget section of Visit London for an exhaustive rundown of free attractions and performances, cheap eats, and inexpensive hotels. If you’re only going to be in London a short time and plan on buying theater tickets, you can save a small fortune by booking a Theater Breaks package with tickets and a hotel stay. Be sure to get an Oyster card if you’ll be using the Tube regularly; it cuts the ticket price down to a more bearable level.

Freebie Join a BBC show audience by reserving tickets for a TV-show taping—perhaps trivia with Brain of Britain or comedy with Grown Ups. Choose from a schedule of upcoming sessions and come ready to laugh or clap.

You know you’re in trouble when half of the “affordable tips” section of Tokyo’s website is devoted to ways to get from the airport to the city for under $40.

To find an affordable meal, eat at noodle stalls for under $10, or explore the unique Japanese culinary stop: the department store basement. Seibu Department Store in the Ikebukuro area is a destination in itself, with two giant underground floors of food stalls extending several city blocks. The prim uniformed greeters bow as you enter.

Book a free walking tour of the Shinjuku commercial avenue through the tourist office and you’ll get the lay of the land from English-speaking volunteers.

Freebie Gape at the neon city below from the 45th-floor observatory of the Tokyo government skyscraper. For only-in-Tokyo views of another sort, stroll through the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market, otherwise known as the Tsukiji fish market. By either name it’s the world’s largest, with 1,400 stalls selling everything that moves in the ocean,as well as active auctions from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m.

New York City gets a bad rap mostly because of its sky-high hotel prices. But beyond hotel doors, NYC is teeming with cheap or free events and attractions all year long.

If you’re around in the summer, look for free outdoor concerts in Bryant Park or during Central Park’s SummerStage series. On Saturdays between 10 a.m. and noon and on Wednesdays, you don’t pay to enter The New York Botanical Garden. Every day is free at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Museum at the Hispanic Society, and the National Museum of the American Indian, the latter housed in the beautiful original Custom House building.

One silver lining in the recent economic meltdown is that prices are leveling off and even falling a bit at many New York hotels. If you don’t see a deal, try Hotwire and Priceline, where unbooked rooms go for a sizable discount. Also check BT’s recommendations: New York Hotels at a Price That’s Right.

Freebie Get a good look at the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline by taking a free cruise on the Staten Island Ferry. Join the commuters at dusk to watch the skyscrapers change as the sun goes down. There are also views of the Statue of Liberty from the Ikea Water Taxi, which makes the trip between Manhattan and Ikea’s new location in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Tip: On the way there, sit on the starboard/right side as you’re facing forward—and leave time to sample Ikea’s take on Swedish meatballs.

Expensive restaurants, pumped-up prices for foreigners at museums, and forgettable hotel rooms that can easily top $500 a night—what’s not to like?

Fortunately, parks and gardens cover almost a third of Moscow, and it’s easy to put together an interesting walking tour. Many guidebooks list routes that circle around the center, stop by all the historic churches, or explore the oldest section of the city, called Kitay gorod. If the weather isn’t ideal, go underground. Moscow’s metro stations are attractions of their own, impressive spaces alternately filled with mosaics, marble columns, and bronze statues. A one-way ride will cost you less than $1.

Avoid accommodations in the the pricey city center and instead find something near an outlying metro stop. You can reach the center within 30 minutes from almost any stop. If you’re staying for a few days to a week or traveling with a group, renting an apartment is an option. You’ll pay anywhere from $80 to $200 a night for a larger space with cooking facilities; browse

Freebie At Red Square, you’ll find Lenin’s Mausoleum, where His Waxiness has been embalmed since 1924. The line starts moving at 10 a.m.

France is so popular that restaurants and hotels don’t have to try very hard to stay full. Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to save a euro besides sitting by the Seine eating baguettes and cheese.

The Vélib bike service launched in 2007. More than 20,000 bikes are kept in automated racks posted throughout the city, and the first half hour is free. Use your credit card if it has a smart chip; the chip is typically visible as a small gold or silver circuit board on the card. (some American Express cards, for example, will work.) Otherwise, you’ll need to buy a seven-day ticket for €5 to access the system. Pick up a free Paris a Vélo map for routes and bike paths. Find out about more European bike-sharing programs here

Freebie Hong Kong’s tourism board runs a wide variety of free culture classes in English. Learn the principles of feng shui one afternoon; then practice some moves with a tai chi master the next morning by the harbor.

There’s no getting around it: in L.A. you need a car and you’ll put a lot of mileage on it. You’re joining throngs of aspiring film and TV workers who are neither famous nor rich, so you can eat and have fun on the cheap if you know where to look.

Those in the know say L.A. has the best thrift shops in the U.S., and Hollywood estate sales turn up all kinds of goodies.

Cheap eats are plentiful: Try a double-double and a real milkshake from In-N-Out Burger, and stop by a taco stand for an authentic Mexican lunch.

For a quintessential L.A. experience, shell out $10 per person for a Sunday-night movie screening in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. You can bring a picnic dinner and a cooler of drinks—alcohol is permitted.

Freebie View the Hollywood sign and the city from the Griffith Observatory, or relive countless movie moments by admiring the sprawling city from nearby Mulholland Drive.
The beaches around L.A. are free and open to the public. Once you get north of Malibu to Zuma Beach and beyond, you can find free parking along the road.

Let’s see…take an isolated volcanic island chain in the Pacific and turn it into a tourist paradise full of golf courses and huge hotels. Only one problem: the costly long-distance shipping of everything but pineapples and poi.

Staying in a house or a condo with a kitchen helps. When stocking up on groceries, avoid the tourist centers and find a regular supermarket to save on your bill. Most restaurants in Waikiki are priced for tourists. To pay what the locals pay, head to Honolulu’s Chinatown, order Hawaiian-style fast food from one of 24 Zippy’s locations, or check out the Cheap Places to Eat in Oahu blog for ideas.

Freebie Learn to play the ukulele or dance the hula with free one-hour lessons at the Royal Hawaiian Center.

Get a free big-wave surf show between November and February by heading out of town and up to Oahu’s North Shore. Many of the world’s premier surfing competitions are held here, with waves that can swell to 30 feet.

There’s a lot to love about this city, but the dramatic hilltop vistas come with nosebleed prices for hotels and restaurants in prime areas.

The gap between expensive restaurants and cheap ethnic dives here is as wide as the San Francisco Bay. To eat great Chinese food on the cheap, avoid the spots decorated with pagodas and dragons, with waitresses in floor-length silk pajamas. Instead, find the alley spots away from tourist areas—the ones with Formica tables and a staff that barely speaks English. Z&Y Garden, Y. Ben House, and Hang Ah Tea Room are good places to start. Then next meal, hit one of the Mission District taquerias to stuff yourself as full as a burrito for $10 or so, drink included.

If you’re traveling with a bike or in-line skates, you can move freely through the eastern half of Golden Gate Park on carless Sundays. Hiking trails in the hills of Berkeley and Oakland offer panoramic views of the whole area. You can also get some exercise and some interesting photo ops by strolling 1.7 miles (each way) across the Golden Gate Bridge.

The new CultureBus is $7 for an all-day unlimited pass, and it allows you to get on and off at many of the top museums and parks. Read more about it on our blog.

Freebie The volunteer San Francisco City Guides organization has been running walking tours for 30 years. Each day presents a menu of choices, like a “Bawdy and Naughty” tour of Gold Rush-era brothels and dives downtown or a tour of the famous Haight-Ashbury district.

Hotels and attractions in this popular European capital are jammed with tourists—especially in the summer—and eating out can make you say “Mama Mia!” when the check arrives.

On the other hand, getting around Rome by bus and metro is downright cheap: €4 for a one-day pass or €11 for a three-day tourist ticket (the BTI). Or just hop on the #40 express and get a scenic tour from the Vatican to Termini Station by way of the Forum, Piazza Venezia, and the Tiber River.

The Europeans love their bottled water, but that doesn’t mean you have to shell out €2 or €3 for it every time you get thirsty. Buy yours at a supermarket instead, and refill it from one of the many public drinking fountains: the water’s perfectly drinkable.

To eat well without breaking the bank, visit a pizza-by-the-slice place or a tavola calda (hot table) cafeteria, where you pick from a selection of meats and vegetables. If you manage to hit a bakery at closing time, you might luck out with a bag full of extra goodies thrown in gratis.

Freebie There are more than 20,000 pieces on display at the Numismatic Museum of the Italian Mint, where you can learn about evolving money-making techniques. Show your ID to obtain the free entrance pass. A free daily puppet show (granted, in Italian) at Park Gianicolo on Janiculum Hill has panoramic city views for a backdrop.

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Discover the historical significance of Malta

June 25, 2008, 1:39 pm

Mopeds, Horsemeat and Pynchon on Malta

The Frugal Traveler
Diving from the pier at Hondoq Bay.Diving from the pier at Hondoq Bay.
Last Friday night, Sunny Bar & Restaurant filled up quickly. Families, couples and friends gathered at the simple wooden tables to share bowls of snails and platters of spaghetti with rabbit sauce, while men of all ages stood at the bar, drinking Cisk lager and watching the tense Croatia-Turkey football match on TV. Occasionally, one would wander outside to greet a friend in front of the huge, moonlit church that dominates the main square of the village of Mgarr, on the west side of the island of Malta.
Sunny Bar & Restaurant
Sunny Bar & Restaurant

Amid this warm, quaint scene, I ordered a dish of braised horsemeat and tried to relax. It was not easy, despite my steady consumption of Blue Label ale. For one thing, I was trapped — my rented moped had run out of fuel, and the two-pump gas station on the village square had closed long ago. Worse, I was stuck on the wrong island. My bed-and-breakfast, Number 43, lay on Gozo, Malta’s sister isle, and to reach it, I’d have to travel 45 minutes north and catch a 25-minute ferry ride (4.65 euros, or $7.25 at $1.59 to the euro, round-trip). How I’d get there, I wasn’t sure.

And then there was the bald man. Staring at me, his face shiny with drink, he gave me a three-fingered salute whose precise meaning I couldn’t fathom. Five minutes later, he punched another customer in the head. As Sunny’s owners threw the bald man and his victim into the street, I took a bite of my horse. It was rich, lean and tender, with a metallic tinge of iron — you might even call it ironic.

I had come to Malta — an island nation of 400,000 about 60 miles south of Sicily and 180 miles east of Tunisia— with the most high-minded of ideals. The 18th-century Grand Tourists were obsessed with Classical culture. But because of the difficulty of travel, they rarely ventured past Sicily. In Malta, I planned to do what they could not and explore a place that was ruled by virtually every culture that ever launched a boat in the Mediterranean, from the Phoenicians and Romans to, more recently, the British, who ran it as a colony from 1814 to 1964. Edward Gibbon, eat your heart out.
It helped that Malta seemed phenomenally affordable. My one-way flight from Rome on Air Malta was 62.42 euros. And for 25 euros a night, I had the biggest room at Number 43 on Gozo (43, Triq it 28 ta April; 356-2156-5435;, a year-old, British-run B&B in an old stone house in the picturesque village of Qala.
Even better, I had free Wi-Fi, a washing machine, a swimming pool — and the chance to experience one of the oddest melting-pot cultures of the Mediterranean. The Maltese language is Arabic in origin, but written in the Roman alphabet, with significant loanwords from Italian. Also, most people speak English well, a legacy of colonialism. The state religion is a version of Roman Catholicism so orthodox that abortion and even divorce are illegal.
Meanwhile, MTV had chosen Malta as the annual site of its weeklong “Isle of MTV” bacchanal, taking place this week. The antiquated, smoke-belching buses date from the colonial era; there are also reputedly more Ferraris here per capita than anywhere else in the world. The Maltese lira, now being phased out in favor of the euro, was stronger than the British pound. No wonder three different people I met in Rome described this tiny country, whose three main islands cover just 122 square miles (about the size of the borough of Queens), as “weird.” (They meant it in a good way, I think.)
Malta’s historical significance, however, outweighs its tiny weirdness. For 2,000 years, it was one of the most important strategic locations in the Mediterranean, a key to controlling naval traffic between the sea’s east and west. More recently, Malta has occupied a strategic spot in the American imagination, from “The Maltese Falcon” to Thomas Pynchon’s “V” and Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” both of which had significant scenes set here. And Hollywood has gotten into Malta, too: “Troy,” “Gladiator” and even “Popeye” were shot here.
But experiencing this history via museums and archaeological sites proved a challenge, and not merely because I was staying on a secondary island. Malta in summer is so hot — easily 90 degrees — that the only thing to do after lunch is to find a place in the shade and nap till the heat subsides, around 4 p.m. Unfortunately for ambitious Grand Tourists, virtually all museums close at 5 p.m. How’s that for a catch-22?

The restaurant Ta’ Vestru
The restaurant Ta’ Vestru.

My first day, for example, I walked out of Number 43 and into the heart of Qala (pronounced A-la), which like all Maltese villages centers on a magnificent Catholic church. Across from the church was Ta’ Vestru (5, St. Joseph’s Square, 356-2156-4589), where I ate rabbit stew, a Gozo specialty made from the meatiest bunny I’ve ever encountered, larded with carrots and peas, braised in red wine and served with a whole roast head of cauliflower and sweet peppers sautéed with fennel seeds. I washed it down with a half-liter of the house white and paid the ridiculously modest bill: 12.75 euros. I didn’t need to eat again all day.

Stuffed, I barely made it past Qala’s beige stone houses and endless stands of yellow-flowering wild fennel, to Hondoq Bay, the closest beach, where I roasted my distended belly amid vacationing Brits and local kids who dove effortlessly into the warm, blue water from a high pier. Sailboats and a Jet Ski sent ripples across the calm waters.
To see Malta and Gozo, I needed to be mobile, so I rented a 50cc Piaggio from On Two Wheels (36, Rabat Road, Marsalforn, 356-2156-1503, at 19 euros a day. I first visited the Ggantija Temples (; admission 3.49 euros), erected between 3600 and 3000 B.C. and believed to be the oldest free-standing buildings in the world. The back story was more impressive than its appearance — crumbling walls of beige brick supported by scaffolding. Angkor Wat this was not.

The luncheonette Gesther’s.
The luncheonette Gesther’s.

With the heat getting to me, I skipped nearby Calypso’s Cave — where legend has it Ulysses was detained for seven years as a love slave — in favor of a long, slow, well-shaded lunch at Gesther’s (8th September Avenue, Xaghra, 356-2155-6621), a charming luncheonette recommended by Time Out Malta & Gozo. My fish soup, spaghetti with rabbit sauce and red wine cost 10.10 euros, and brought that day’s Grand Tourism to an end.

I was starting to understand why the 18th-century Grand Tourists took months or even years to complete their adventures.
On Friday I hopped the ferry and rode the moped into Valletta, Malta’s enchanting capital. Constructed in 1566 by the Knights of St. John — the mysterious, multinational order of warrior monks who made Malta their base — Valletta is a fortified peninsula jutting a mile and a quarter into Grand Harbour, its high bastions (now crowned with gardens) the ultimate line of defense against Ottoman forces. The streets follow a grid pattern, an odd choice considering the peninsula is as hilly as San Francisco.
To explore Valletta, I needed energy. Joined by Martin Galea de Giovanni, a soft-spoken, ponytailed friend of a friend, I lunched at Rubino (53, Old Bakery Street, 356-2122-4656), a century-old restaurant where we ate antipasti, risotto and rabbit meatloaf (46.30 euros with wine) alongside a member of the European Parliament and a former Maltese government minister.

The hilly streets of Valletta.
The hilly streets of Valletta.

Then we combed Valletta, marching up and down the hills looking for evidence of the now-sleepy city’s illustrious past and marveling at the cute Victorian-style balconies. On Strait Street in the heart of the Gut, the entertainment district once frequented by visiting sailors, I was hoping to find the Metro Bar, where a key scene of Pynchon’s unsummarizable “V” takes place. We asked old-timers and were directed to a doorway filled with cinderblocks. The Metro Bar was no more.

Like the New Life Music Hall, the Smiling Prince and the Blue Peter — whose faded signs hung over locked and cobwebbed doors — the Metro had shut down sometime after 1979, when the British naval base closed, and I was left to wonder what lay within. Did it still look, as Pynchon wrote, “like a nobleman’s pied-a-terre applied to mean purposes”? Did “statues of Knights, ladies and Turks” still line the “wide curving flight of marble steps” that led to the second-story dance floor? Or had the Metro’s owners carted off the decorations that had lodged within the imagination of young Pynchon (who presumably visited Valletta during his 1955-57 stint in the Navy)?

Today, all that remains of the Gut’s glory days is a 90-year-old tattoo parlor and a few graybeards who remember the noise and chaos and fun. “But now it’s too quiet here, too quiet,” one of them told us. “If you come at Friday night, Saturday, Sunday, you can bring shotgun and you can shoot and nobody, nobody take notice.”

His nostalgia was palpable, and another Pynchon line seemed apt: “Monuments, buildings, plaques were remembrances only; but in Valletta remembrances seemed almost to live.”

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For the best bargains, Join the Locals

‘When in Rome …’ is great advice for thrifty-minded travelers.

By Tim Leffel
MSNBC Travel News

A funny thing happens after living in a foreign place for a few months: The cost of living starts falling. It feels like magic, but it’s not. What happens is that the new resident figures out who has the entertainment freebies, how to get around for less money, and where to get a great meal for a good price. Spending less becomes almost effortless.
You may not be a savvy local the first day you land in a new destination, but you don’t have to be a clueless tourist with a wide-open wallet, either. If you just take on the attitude of a local, the battle is half won.
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Long-term travel: Starting a 75-day journey

In honour of the Rugby World Cup 2007, we’re doing a blow-out itinerary that will last 75 days, and not sure if we’ll kill each other or enjoy it thoroughly. We will be travelling from September 1 to November 15, 2007 and visiting 13 countries and countless cities along the way. Pray to god we’re not divorced by the end of our travels!

Life’s short – what would it be without adventures?

The plan/itinerary is to visit:
FRANCE: Paris, Marseilles, Lille, Bordeaux
ITALY: Rome, Naples, Amalfi Coast
SICILY: Catania, Mt. Etna
MALTA: Gozo and Comino also
SPAIN: San Sebastian
GREECE & TURKEY Cruise (including Istanbul)
ISRAEL: Tel AViv, Jerusalem, Bethlehem
JORDAN: Amman, Petra, Madaba
EGYPT: Cairo, Aswan, Luxor, and more (including Nile cruise)

Yep! That constitutes a lot of travel over the next 75 days starting in Halifax Nova Scotia, Canada.
This trip started with me ‘mis-placing’ my passport before boarding the Iceland Air flight from Halifax to Paris. Nice start to a 75-day International trip!!

Iceland Air was a great way to quickly get to Paris. The service was efficient and courteous with a quick stop in Iceland for customs formalities and then onwards to Paris.

Iceland Air and the attendants with their neat little hats!
Arrival in Paris:
I`ve heard people comment that New Orleans was fashioned after Paris, and in the furthest stretch of my mind, I could see where they could come up with that similarity.
However – Paris is SO MUCH more, and we only had opportunity to visit the highlights of the city in our short stay. Beautiful old buildings, winding (and sometimes crazy to maneuvre) streets, much wrought iron and on every corner, something historical and/or fantastic to see. We`ll have to come back (there’s still Versailles, Montmartre, and so much more…) our time is short here, and there is wayyyy too much to see in just a few days.

Our hotel, Hotel Eiffel Seine on Rue Grenelle is in an excellent location for walking to the Eiffel Tower (maybe just 10 minutes walk) and also located close to a Paris city Hop-on Hop-off bus stop. Hotel itself is quite nice, and reception was wonderful on arrival (didn`t force me to speak TOO much francaise, Mon Dieu! (Fatigue, International flights and functioning 2nd language don’t always go hand in hand).

At this hotel, they make the absolute most of ‘available space’, and the lift is quite tiny (see above) 🙂 Interior decorating/design to hide or dramatize the hotels good and bad points is critical with smaller spaces, and this property does that with finesse. It is very close walking distance to Eiffel Tower & the Seine (hence the name).

Oh the Eiffel Tower is even more magnificent to see at Night! People drinking wine underneath the Eiffel and all kinds of people & activity around the area. I would HIGHLY recommend viewing at night if you get the opportunity, as well as in daytime, due to the wonderful Eiffel Tower light show.

We were very excited to see Rugby flags and banners and everything Rugby World Cup everywhere you look around in Paris. Here’s to Rugby World Cup 2007!!

Tomorrow we will tour around Paris some, visiting the Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral and other places. Vive la Paris!