The Taste of Sweet Victory
Touching down in the final country on any of my trips is always somewhat of a victory. It’s always a crap-shoot when you’re traveling to a ton of countries very quickly: Canceled flights and rejected visa applications can easily cause you to miss one or more stops. Add a pandemic to the mix, and it’s a downright celebration when you beat the odds and actually hit every country on a journey – entry and exit requirements seem to change every minute!
For the most part, I’ve been super lucky. Yes, there have been some close calls, but on almost all of my big voyages I’ve managed to hit every single stop, even during Corona season…except for one. My luck ran out when I arrived in Bulgaria in October of 2020 – where they turned me right around at immigration and put my butt on the next flight out. But that was the only snafu! Two big European trips and a giant West African adventure in 2020, all completed before the vaccine – many miracles happened, I assure you!
But this June 2021 trip felt refreshingly different than my recent journeys to these last 30+ countries over the last 12 months, mid-pandemic. Until now, I’d been flying by the seat of my pants, relying on pure luck, timing, prayers, a few business letters of invitation and even one very special permission slip from the Hungarian Police who were nice enough to grant a rare exemption for me back in June of 2020. And once you’re “inside” the EU…well, you can figure it out for yourself: Suddenly, this American had unbridled access to half the continent. It was awesome, but also nerve wracking. Oh man, I can write a book about my travels during the pandemic. It was insane!
The Coast is Clear
Things felt different now. The vaccine was out and a handful of countries had opened their doors to folks who’ve had their shots. This particular trip started in Lebanon, followed by a quick, direct flight over to Cyprus. I crossed into Northern Cyprus (Turkish territory), where I’d leave for Tunisia, via a quick connect in Istanbul.
Once again, I got a little lucky, with the border that divides Cyprus opening up just days before my arrival – I needed to cross over to fly out. Same story with Tunisia – it only opened five days before my arrival. Once again, I’d been blessed with some incredible luck.
And now, I was jumping on this very infrequent Tunis to Malta flight on a little ATR 72 propeller plane – a flight so quick and convenient, I really had a hard time believing it would actually happen. I wouldn’t get too excited until I was actually “on” the plane – but yeah, there I was…”on” the plane! We’re going to Malta! Here’s comes country number 165!
A Fantasy World
I knew Malta was special, but no pictures or videos could ever prepare me for seeing it with my own eyes. I’ll never forget seeing the capital, Valletta, for the very first time. I’d barely left the airport when the old city came into view – the golden sun making all those old beautiful stone buildings glow. The entire city reminded me of one, giant, magical castle. I was so giddy with excitement that I could barely contain myself. I’d saved the best for last.
I only had two nights in Malta and didn’t want to waste a moment. While staying in and resting in that beautiful hotel with its big fluffy bed sure was tempting (I was so exhausted), I just couldn’t bear giving up any time on the ground. So shortly after check-in, I was back out on my already aching feet. There was so much to see!
CAUTION: Geography Nerd Ahead
I’m actually going to make a whole ‘nother entry detailing my first afternoon in Malta and the “other” country that I visited. That’s right, technically, there is another country inside of Malta. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta is actually its own nation. Here’s where it gets weird: This country has its own passport, its own prince, and its recognized by the UN…but owns no land! I’m serious – this is not some crazy riddle. The story is pretty cool, and I’ll explain it on a separate article.
But that begs the question: Just how does one “visit” a country that has no land? Well, this country leases three properties around the world: Two in Italy and one in Malta. Well I’m in Malta, and it just so happens that the leased quarters of one of the order’s knights was located just across the harbor. I guess my afternoon was now booked!
I dropped my bags at my hotel and headed over on foot to catch the Three Cities Ferry that would usher me across the water. Once across, I headed up and into Fort San Angelo, where The Sovereign Military Order of Malta leases the top section. I’d read conflicting reports and wasn’t sure if I could get in without a scheduled tour appointment, but I was so close, I couldn’t not try!
It was almost closing time by the time I trekked up that steep stone ramp and into the reception. I talked Mr. Misfud at the front desk and was relieved and delighted that he’d be able to give me a tour, including showing me “up top.” What a score!
Mr. Misfud gave me a fantastic and very educational tour of the fort, providing a wonderful history lesson on Malta. I learned so much in such a short amount of time. What a fascinating country! My biggest takeaways included just how important Malta’s location was/is, strategically and politically speaking. Its location in the Mediterranean, smack-dab between Europe and Africa, makes it one of the most important pieces of land anywhere in the world. Malta was also the most bombed nation during WWII. But what fascinated me the most was just how many empires had held control of Malta over the centuries: the Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Goths, Arabs, Ottomans, the French, British and more. The number of different ruling empires of Malta made my head spin!
While I enjoyed and appreciated all of Mr. Misfud’s knowledge on Malta and the fort, I was all the time so anxious to make it to the top. It still felt too good to be true and I’d heard entering this “top” portion of the fort was not easy. The hairs on my arms stood straight up as we turned the corner to see the iron gate (which was open) under The Sovereign Military Order of Malta crest. This was actually happening!!!
V is Also for Valletta
After seeing the fort, I ate the biggest calzone of my life, next door at restaurant called VAULT1. It was literally the size of a large baby. I needed a big meal and then a big sleep. I’d been going, going, going – seeing six countries over the past week and clocking in multiple miles on foot each day. I was reaching the point of exhaustion and knew if I didn’t fully recharge, I’d hit a wall. Plus, I had a huge, full itinerary scheduled the next day – starting at 7AM. I needed some serious, deep hibernation. After the giant plate of meat, cheese and carbs, it was back to the hotel for a quick dip in the rooftop pool, and then back to the room. I closed each curtain tight to block out all light, took a couple sleeping pills and climbed into that fluffy bed for one of the best 10-hour slumbers I’d ever experienced.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how much I enjoyed romping through the capital that first day. Though this first day’s tour through Valletta was short, it did not lack quality. What an amazing city.
Get up and Go(Zo)!
I awoke the next morning refreshed and relieved – I knew I’d enjoy my big day today now that I was fully recharged. I had the best French toast with bananas and walnuts at the hotel restaurant before sprinting out onto the street to start my day. I’d tried my best to watch what I ate during the entire trip, but I was ready for a treat. Plus, I’d need the carbs for energy – big day today! I mom-walked down to Grand Harbour to make sure I didn’t miss my ferry to Gozo Island. They were expecting me!
I’d be a guest of VisitMalta today. The official tourist department of Malta arranged and took care of my entire day today. Let me first thank them for planning such a wonderful day for me – the itinerary was incredible, as you are about to see. It would be a nonstop adventure full of history, nature, great food and beautiful water.
I really enjoyed the ride over, on the Gozo Fast Ferry. It was super comfy and I got there so fast! My guide Joseph and driver Giuseppe were waiting for me upon arrival and soon we were cruising up into the hills in our sweet electric golf cart. The sun was shining and the skies were blue. I couldn’t have wished for better weather. We had an amazing morning!
Lunch at Ta’ Karolina was just scrumptious – our table was inches from the sands of a quaint little bay called Xlendi waterfront. The second half of the day was just as exciting and fun as Joseph and Giuseppe showed me more of Gozo. From churches to quarries to salt pools, I was carted around like royalty, with VIP treatment the entire way.
One of my favorite stops was a special wine tasting at a private vineyard. Sipping wine and chatting with the owner of Tal-Massar Winery was the perfect mid-afternoon break.
Floating across Dwerja Bay and in-between giant rocks that opened up to the sea was awe inspiring. The water looked so amazing – Joseph saw me salivating at that emerald ocean and added in a stop at Hondoq ir-Rummien beach so I could take a dip before my boat departed back to Valletta. It was the perfect ending to a day in Gozo.
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Back in Valletta, I took my time walking back to the hotel from the docks. The sun was setting on the city and all those old buildings were just glowing gold. I took my time to admire all the statues manning corners, the wooden window boxes and ornate door fixtures. The streets of Valletta were dressed up with more detail than a ride at Disneyland. The character and care bestowed onto every structure was just incredible. Walking up and down the streets here made me feel like I was starring in a fairy tale.
Every Vacation has its Last Day
I’d planned on just taking it easy this last day–bumming around the streets before my 7PM flight–but instead opted for another tour. After breakfast, I took a brisk walk through the city before Adrian picked me up in his black Mercedes at 10. We’d squeeze every last second out of my remaining time here. This place was too magical not to.
I Yam What I Am
I almost forgot about Popeye’s Village, but remembered just in time to tell Adrian I wanted to see it! Okay, this is so neat and even more bizarre! In the late 1970s a production crew was scouting locations to film the movie Popeye. They needed a tropical lagoon that didn’t have palm trees – so all the Caribbean locations were out. They finally decided on Malta and dropped millions in constructing an entire village for the movie set. This wasn’t just putting up a few building facades like they do for Westerns – this was a whole small town! When they were done with the movie, instead of tearing the set down or letting it decay, it was turned into an amusement park. It’s no Disneyland, but definitely worth visiting, even if for just being able to say you’ve “been there!” Who didn’t grow up with Popeye?
So Very Hard to Go
I hated finally heading to the airport that night. What magnificent end to such a a sweet trip. Malta ranks high on my list. Clean, safe, that amazing Mediterranean weather, and a million and one things to do. Whether your looking for luxury, nature, activities, culture, food, or all of it – Malta is the move. I rank Malta especially high for couples who want to visit Europe, but want something a little different and more exotic than Spain, Italy, France, etc. – but might not quite be ready to rumble in Africa. Malta is full of magic everywhere you turn!
FUN FACT: Did you know you can reach Malta via a 90-minute ferry from Sicily?! What a great add-on if you’re planning a trip to Italy.
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