twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. so throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. catch the trade winds in your sail. explore. dream. discover.
— mark twain —
malta is under siege. the sun is shining brightly and the warm weather has forced tourists and citizens alike to seek shelter under umbrellas and fans for the best sort of protection. over 90 degrees of pure unadulterated sunshine met us as we landed in luqa on a very hot summer day in july. i have now officially been to 41 of 51 countries in europe, and i can tell you that there is no other place quite like malta. our journey started with receiving a very lengthy maltese history lesson from the taxi driver while we were hopelessly lost trying to find our hotel in cospicua. between blaming the GPS for its “incorrect directions” and pointing out strange alleged caves of pre-human humans, we eventually found our home away from home (julesy’s bnb) tucked away on a small, quaint cobblestone street right in the heart of the three cities.
we were out the door just as quickly as we arrived, wasting no time getting our explorer faces on. a few short minutes from where we were staying we wound up finding a restaurant right on the harbor that promised shade, cold drinks (try the colorful aperol spritz, it was my first and definitely will not be my last) and some local grilled fish. making quick friends with the waiter at sotto vento, he brought the fresh catch out for us to choose from, and because you should always travel with someone who knows your food game, a telepathic decision was made the second the words red snapper were breathed. the grilled fish was to die for, and that wasn’t the heat stroke talking. it was perfectly cooked with a very simple preparation of lemon and olive oil making it melt in your mouth delicious. coupled with cold local beer and homemade ice cream for dessert, it was the perfect start to a wonderful two days we were about to spend in one of the most densely populated countries in the world.
with stomachs filled and smiles on our faces, we were off again ready to take in some more sights. i didn’t do much research for this trip, fully expecting to get lost and to just enjoy being maltese for a few days. from the quiet harbor to the maze of beautifully maintained stone streets, i was transfixed by the simple beauty of birgu. pops of color on balconies and brightly painted doors with beautiful brass handles gave the three cities an undisputed charm. i was in love and i didn’t care who knew it.
on our slow city stroll we spotted a stone wall that was just asking to be climbed, even if i did have a dress on. the views were breathtaking and it ended up being the perfect spot to watch the impending sunset. the only thing that could make this night any better was a few cans of beer to cheers to the night. we jumped down and walked a short distance to find an open bodega and purchased some local beer and paprika potato strings, the snack of all snacks. minutes later we were off to reclaim our place on the wall once again, very jon snow without the freezing temperatures of the north. sitting there that night taking everything in, it not only felt like we were all alone, we literally were alone. the only ones enjoying this spectacular view at that very moment from the very place in which we sat. the warm glow of the setting sun on the peaceful, quiet harbor was pure magic, and something i will remember for the rest of my life.
spending the warm evenings strolling the meticulous streets, laughing about things and cars we saw along the narrow roads made the trip feel extra personal. we popped into a bar that was filled with elderly people line dancing, we met friendly cats along the way, and spoke about what a great day we just had. as i have mentioned in my previous posts, most of my travel consists of solo travel so when you have a partner in crime on some of your adventures it makes it so much more memorable, even if it is just for a few short days. collecting moments with someone in a new place offers so many more memories even after you arrive back home. to be able to remember the one time you watched a gorgeous sunset in malta over the harbor drinking local beer and eating chips is perfect in and of itself, but to remember what it felt like, the smells, the sounds and the laughter and enjoyment you shared with someone else while you were both there is something that will stay with you even as time goes on.
the next day we took the 15 minute ferry to the capital city of valletta. the ride was breezy and beautiful and before we knew it, we were in the biggest city on the island. while the three cities offered peaceful, quiet streets, valletta was bursting with life. tourists soaking in the views, children jumping off the walls into the warm water, waiters and waitresses smiling while they worked the day away, and streets with shops to equal those of any major city in europe, valletta had such an upbeat, happy vibe that left me wondering how anyone could not love this place.
we enjoyed our last evening back in birgu sitting in an open air courtyard laughing and discussing business ideas while drinking delicious red maltese wine under the stars. malta felt like a perfect dream, something i did not want to wake up from. unfortunately though, time marches on and we were off to turkey the next day excited for another new adventure, another new conquest. i guess what they say is true, there is no rest for the wicked.
there are always so many negative things in the news about turkey these days, and i’m not just talking about a thanksgiving feast gone awry. several yearly reports consistently rank turkey as one of the most dangerous countries in the world (currently #15, right behind north korea – 28 most dangerous countries in the world) so you can understand why my american dad sent me several texts questioning my sanity when i told him turkey was one of the next countries on my european conquest list. while lists are great, and i make them for literally everything in my daily life, i wasn’t going to trust this one without seeing it for myself first. trust but verify, life lesson right there.
landing at atatürk airport was easy enough, but i can tell you that waiting 90 minutes to get through immigration and passport control was enough to make me want to get back on a plane and return to sunny, secluded malta. luckily i had someone with me to keep me sane and to also eat gummy bears in line with. we did the best we could to make the misery somehow less miserable and time passed on relatively quickly, the benefits of duo-travel. who knew?
imagine a city where old meets new. a city who was once known the world over by the name of constantinople and is now constantly questioning whether its identity is as a country of europe and the EU or a country of asia, or maybe both. from beautiful mosques built in 537 AD to counterfeit goods of every kind sold in stalls along the grand bazaar, istanbul was a mix of both extreme chaos and extreme beauty. the majestic grand hotels in the old city (we stayed at the ajwa hotel, which was absolutely gorgeous. the attention to detail was spot on and i am pretty sure i could have lived in the bathroom for the rest of my life), the men drinking tea and smoking hookah outside the grand bazaar, the women dressed in everything from burkas to short shorts, and the street food on every corner was a sight to behold.
one of my first priorities in a new country is to try the local food. i have not had much turkish food in the past, other than the times i have been to cologne, the turkish capital of germany, but i can confirm that the food here was indeed amazing. i have been asked several times what my favorite food has been so far in all of the countries i have visited and i usually say greek food without hesitation, but i have to say, turkish food is right up there also. delicious apple tea, desserts galore, grilled meat, kebabs, dönner, olives, and salads with perfectly ripened tomatoes, cucumbers and parsley….oh, and the spices. oh my god, the spices!! the only thing dangerous i saw in turkey was the potential heartburn the pul biber aleppo pepper spice on every table would bring. (worth the risk and put it on everything, it is amazing!!).
beyond the food, you can find literally anything in istanbul, no joke. you can wander around the grand bazaar built in 1597 for hours on end shopping for local items sold by the hundreds of shops crammed into the indoor space, or maybe you are interested in a little outdoor street shopping instead. they have that too. one thing we noticed while exploring the city was the way they seemed to organize their shopping streets and districts. you would walk down one street and the entire street was filled with shoe shops and cobblers. the next street was home goods, then all hardware stores. want some kitchen stuff? head to the street filled with pots, pans and tea sets to get your fix. there was even an area filled with camping and outdoor shops, something i personally love wandering around in.
if you’re not into delicious food or random shopping, you’ll be glad to know that istanbul also has its fair share of historical sights and local flair. from long walks along the water’s edge watching fishing boats come and go, to hagia sophia and the blue mosque, you really need weeks to see it all.
our evenings in turkey were spent finding local bars overlooking the bosphorous serving hookah and their delicious local beer, efes. then when we needed a sugar fix, we found historic local cafes serving up apple tea and turkish delights guaranteed to light up your soul. all of the beautiful shiny dessert shops looked like they could fit in on 5th avenue in new york city on christmas day (sekerci cafes erol & hafiz mustafa are both worth a visit, or six). beyond the storefronts you could scoop up bags of pumpkin seeds, dried apricots, pistachios and pretty much anything else you could want as a snack as you roamed the streets. salty and sweet, these shops had it all. need something more lively and hipster? go over to the karaköy neighborhood and sit outside with a coffee or a beer and just people watch (we went to tükkan). the bars and cafes lit up with the soft glow of edison lights had such a great, fun vibe that made you feel like you were not surrounded by millions and millions of other people on all sides of you. a really fantastic area that we just happened to stumble upon close to the camping shopping district.
soon our turkish adventure was over and we were off to istanbul’s other airport for our long trip back to norway. a trip to turkey of course wouldn’t be complete without a crazy driving story so here is mine. have you ever taken an uber to a taxi to the airport before? me either, until we were about five minutes away from sabiha gökçen airport on our way back home. after the disaster that was atatürk airport, we figured we’d take no chances and left with plenty of time for our 1030am departure. we checked when we first arrived in the city whether uber was functional here or not and saw that it would be relatively easy to get an uber to the airport, so at 8am sharp we were booked and three minutes later our ride was there. as we aggressively weaved through sunday traffic (word to the wise, if you are not use to crazy city drivers keep your eyes closed, trust me) we were about two miles from the airport when our driver pulled over to the side of the highway without saying anything to us. apparently the word was out and the turkish police were inspecting cars which meant all ubers would be fined 5000 lira plus an additional 4000 lira per passenger. he basically told us in broken english to get out and take a taxi to the airport. wait, what? we were let out at a roundabout in a shopping area a few miles from the airport while our driver stood in oncoming traffic trying to secure us a taxi, which we did not have enough local currency to pay for. he handed us a 10 lira note and left. my first ever uber-taxi hybrid. they may not exist everywhere in the world but sure enough they do in istanbul. a memorable end to an amazing trip.
this trip was amazing but also a complete whirlwind. while i was happy to see two new countries and get one step closer to finishing my travel goal, there was something very important i realized in the days after we arrived home. sometimes the best kind of travel is the kind that takes you out your backdoor, onto your veranda that overlooks the water and not miles away to the shores of another country. slowing down and enjoying what you have right outside your door is just as special and important as seeing the wonders of the world. there is space enough for both of these things and it’s all about balance and priority. i have been on this journey for nine months and some of my best memories are the times when i have been doing absolutely nothing but enjoying a sunset and a glass of wine in norway and not rushing around to finish something as quickly as possible because i have the ability to do so. living life is about more than just proving a point, it’s about really enjoying the life you love and being happy with what and who you have in that life at that moment. it’s true that life is short and there will always be a desire for me to see the world, but sometimes your whole world is where your heart is, not where the next plane will take you. enjoy the moments you have no matter where you are, you may never get to experience them again.
keep reading, keep checking in… i promise it gets better.