Almost an Athenian…

First day back in Athens was also my last with Deb, Marie and Al. I was unexpectedly invited along to an early evening soirée at their hotel roof terrace, which provided fabulous views down to the columns of the Temple of Zeus and up to the Acropolis. A fitting farewell after a fabulous week.

I was now on my third stop in Athens this trip so it was time to see a few of the originals from the ruins I’d visited a couple of weeks ago.

First stop the Athens Archeological Museum. It was a real treat. You could spend a day there but I got a good sense of some of the key pieces in a couple of hours. They even had a nice little Egyptian section.

I then decided to make my way to the funicular to get up to Lyttivos Hill. A couple of corners on and I encountered three buses full of riot police. They were piling out hanging onto their shields so imagining something was going down I got out of there rather quickly. As I continued on I noticed that all the shops looked long abandoned – they were half full and locked up with bars and chain wire. I’d thought I was walking through the uni area but realised it was a bit of a ghetto. Bought back memories of a similar experience in Bogotá, Colombia. Time for even more speed!

I was soon in a reasonable looking suburb but despite all the uphill there was no sign of a funicular ticket office. After asking a couple of taxi drivers who provided conflicting advice I was finally winding my way up to the lookout. The view of Athens made the hike up the hill worth it and it helped walk off the orange syrup and honey soaked cake I’d purchased in the way up!

Looking down on the Acropolis provided a different perspective, particularly with the sea in the background. It was starting to rain so thankfully the funicular was nearby from that end!  It seemed appropriate to finish the day with a fries laden veggie gyros in a Monastiraki Taverna!

I hadn’t yet visited the Acropolis museum so that was my main target for the day. Wow!  The pottery found around the city during excavations were amazing but the Korai, Caryatids, that were from the Erechtheion on the Acropolis were quite mesmerising. Only a couple are original with the others replicas (Greeks still trying to get originals back from the British).

There there were the freizes from the Parthenon. The museum had cleverly fused original pieces in with reconstructions to give you a true sense of the actual scale. More wows!

I’d spotted a cool looking spot in the airline mag en-route to Athens so decided to give it a go for dinner. It didn’t disappoint.  All traditional food sourced locally. The only disappointment was that the rooftop terrace was too cool (I mean in a temperature kind of a way) to stay for a drink.

I farewelled the guys in Filema, the restaurant below my room, with a lovely traditional Greek lunch. I’d eaten there before and one of the waiters had told me the night before as I was heading out that he liked my eyes – great marketing strategy.

After coming and going from the 1840s home shared with a few locals I’d become to feel like a local myself. Although waking to see the uncovered frescoes on my bedroom wall was a constant reminder I was in Athens, one of the world’s oldest cities.

I’d also had a little touch of my heritage while I was here. My grandmother, who was half Greek, had always given dad a layered biscuit chocolate cake for his birthday. Needless to say we all looked forward to dad’s birthday each year but I don’t think any of us has realised it is actually a Greek desert; likely handed down from Grandma’s family!

Now I find myself en-route to the Athens airport (having passed yet more ruins – this time in the metro) with a bag a little heavier than when I left.  What a wonderful holiday it has been – full of wonderment, mindfulness, love and laughter. There was nothing more could I ask for…



The ruins at Hadrian’s Library



Sardines – yum!


Just strolling past Hadrian’s Arch en-route to rooftop meze and drinks


Acropolis mesmerising by day or night


Ruins of the Temple of Zeus


A fusion of frescoes and graffiti in the bedroom of my 1840s accommodation


The Mycenaean treasures



Bronze statue of Zeus – 450 BC – uncovered in the sea



Naxian marble statue of Kouros – 600 BC


The Varvakeion Athena – truest and best preserved copy of the one that stood in the Parthenon – although it was twelve times bigger and naked parts were in ivory and the rest in leaves of gold


Vapheio gold cups


The mask of Argememnon – found in Mycenae – ~1500 BC



The Vapheio cups that inspired Picasso 



Frescoes from Thira (Santorini)



Ancient glass – 3rd/2nd century BC


Bronze statue of horse and young jockey also found from a shipwreck 


Hadrian’s gentlemen


Original relief sculptures from Epidaurus


En-route to Lyttivos Hill


Views from Lyttivos Hill



The Caryatids of the Erectheion on the Acropolis 



The omni-present Acropolis


Reliefs from the Acropolis Propylaia (entrance gate)



The city excavations below the Acropolis Museum


Life began here sometime between 3500 and 300 BC …a little while ago!



Tower of the Winds (used as sundial and wind vane)


A great feed of seafood st Ergon House



Filema spoiling me with their Greek rusk salad and zucchini balls as a final farewell to Athens


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Island hopping…

I farewelled my fellow mat buddies at the port of Naxos Island. I had a three hour wait till my ferry to Santorini was due to depart so I wasted no time in getting my luggage stored in the town, visiting the unfinished ancient temple and heading up through the old town.

I found myself blocking the way of an older guy who was trying to navigate  the narrow pedestrian laneways on a scooter. He signalled to me to jump on the back. I thought why not, it was all uphill so a ride seemed a sensible thing to do!  I laughed my head off when he reached for his helmet on the back of his bike because as he did this I thought how considerate of him to offer it to me since he wasn’t using it but he then proceeded to put it on. Must of thought I could become a hazard to him – thankfully we both got to the destination unscathed. I bade him farewell and headed toward the castle fort wall, which unfortunately was closed so I settled for a casual walk back down to the port town. It was quite a labyrinth.

Before long I stumbled into a shop owned by a Melbourne couple who’d settled on the island three years ago. I felt it was my civil duty to buy a pair of shoes from them.  Treacy and Bron who’d also gotten off at Naxos reported back that they had been made aware by the Naxion Australian of a shoe purchase by their fellow mat buddy! 

After buying the biggest green olives I’ve ever seen I was back on a ferry and heading for Santorini.

The port arrival in Santorini (the island is also known as Thira) was just as disorderly as the Naxos departure. After a bit of mucking around I finally found the spot for the bus stop to Fira, which would be my bus changeover spot for Oia.

Bus stops on Santorini are something else. The driver and ticket conductors are very abrupt and you almost fear you’ll be kicked off for breathing!  Needless to say it was a delight when Deb greeted me at the Oia bus stop with her beaming smile. Equally as lovely to see Marie and Al on arrival at the hotel. A terrible virus was making its way through  their tour group and Jeff had recently succumbed so I didn’t see him for a couple of days.

After a brief sighting of the Caldera of Santorini Marie, Deb and I enjoyed a lovely evening out and I had a late night wander through the town. I couldn’t believe the throngs of people I’d seen earlier in the evening. It was the end of the season but the number of cruise ship passengers on Santorini was incredible – shoulder to shoulder was not at all what I had imagined of Santorini.

The next day we were out on an old timber sloop Pegasus, for a boat trip (sadly only motoring). First stop was an island with more than 10 volcanoes. The visible sulphur gases were a reminder of the near and present danger. There were measuring instruments visible all over the island; apparently the inhabitants of Santorini would have a six month warning for the next eruption. The last one pretty much devastated the place in the mid 1900s.

Next stop was a swim in the supposed ‘warm’ waters that were benefiting from the sulphur springs – we didn’t really think there was much temperature difference until we had to swim back through the cooler waters to reach the boat.  Final stop was the island of Thirasia for a lovely seafood lunch perched on the water’s edge.

Some of Deb’s friends from the UK had arrived so we took full advantage of our private roof terrace to catch the sunset over drinks and meze. Some of us wandered out for some more drinks and were pleasantly surprised how peaceful it was once the cruise ships had their passengers back on board.

I’d decided to tackle the hike between Oia and Fira. I’d wanted to catch a bus to Fira and walk back to Oia (reportedly about 100m less elevation – believe me it counts!) but I’d left it too late for this option so headed off in the heat of the day. Unfortunately the Greeks don’t do walking trail signs very well so I had a little trouble finding the start of the track and then again in Imerovigli and Fira but with a bit of local help I made it in a cool 2hrs and 20mins. I was certainly motoring and the tears I’d witnessed of a couple of women and pained faces of others suggested they’d underestimated the walk. There was plenty of up and the sun was brutal when the breeze was blocked by the mountain.

That evening was very special but that’s a secret to be revealed later this month.  All I can say is that I found love in Santorini and that that the UK contingency were up for the after-party in my courtyard.

It was time to go shopping….it’s what you do in Santorini when not chilling by your pool or taking in the views with a drink in hand. Needless to say my suitcase was getting a little more dense!  The day was finished off with dinner and drinks by our pool with the tour group and of course a few more drinks out with my new UK friends Joy and John and Cheryl and Jonathon. Jonathan had been a little forward in offering sex on the beach, which I responsibly declined in favour of Amaretto on ice.  Laughs, laughs and more laughs…

Deb and Jeff were now feeling really well so the next morning we ventured down to Ammoudi Bay in the hope of a swim. The breeze had whipped up choppy water so only Jeff was brave enough to venture in. The Bay still rewarded us with a great seafood lunch which included their famed grilled octopus…delicious!

The tour group had been invited by the Papadopolous Family to a Greek wedding in Fira that evening. With the promise of dancing, merriment and a taste of Greek wine and appetizers who could resist?  It was a fun night that lived up to its promises – we were welcomed as part of the family and of course all named Helena or Costas. Couldn’t leave the Greek islands without a bit of plate smashing.

There is no doubt that Santorini is Instagram heaven for those wanting to strike the pose. On our way to Fira for the wedding I spotted a woman on a quadbike without a helmet zooming along while taking a selfie of herself. I kid you not!

I arrived back into Athens with the reality that my holiday was nearing its end.  It had been a wonderful week of love and laughs with wonderful friends from my first ever job and the gaining of new friends from the UK. Memories that will last a lifetime.


A sunrise departure 


The farewell party at Naxos Island


Unfinished Temple of Apollo



The lovely labyrinth of Kastro



Onwards to Thira (Santorini)


Rooftop drinks


Deb and Jeff on the road to recovery


Al, Marie, Jonathon, Cheryl, John, Joy, Jeff and Deb


Sunset time



 All aboard Pegasus 



Leaving Oia in our wake



Sulphur gases from one of the volcanoes 



Buses navigating the windy and steep road up from the port



Leaving Oia – destination Fira



Fira within sight



A journey down to Ammoudi Bay



….a sustenance stop






A farewell sunset in Fira



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Eat, pray, love…

Eat, pray, love….well actually, more eating than praying!

Arriving at the right ferry terminal was an absolute fluke for Karen and I. With the late change in date for the retreat caused by the proposed ferry strike, Karen and I had missed the latest email about the change in terminal!  Despite this we managed to be scratching our heads at the very right moment when our wonderful yogi, Craig Smith, appeared from a ticket office doorway. A sign for a smooth seven days ahead!

It was wonderful to re-connect with a few people I’d met and shared a villa with at Craig’s Bali Pemuteran retreat five years ago.  We were all waiting anxiously on the ferry for the final retreaters, Dave and Julia, to arrive. They’d left from Milan that day so it was one of those ‘will they make it’ experiences, which thankfully they did.

While it was a long trip of six hours, we were blessed with a smooth crossing to our destination the beautiful Amorgos Island in the Cycladic group in the Aegean Sea. We’d had to stay in a little place along the beach of Aegali because of our early arrival to Amorgos resulting from the strike.  We’d settled into our rooms at 2am so we were all just elated when we woke to find our breakfast area just metres from the sea!

We sat looking at the sea and our lovely accommodation perched on the hill above it. We knew from below we were in for a treat!

Seven days of absolute bliss at Aegialis Hotel and Spa.

While the accommodation was absolutely beautiful we also had to remember we were there for yoga!  The daily program included early morning yoga and meditation, mid morning meditation and application of yogic philosophy and finished with afternoon yoga, pranayama breathing and chanting.  I’d chosen to attend all sessions enjoying every bit of them and growing my knowledge of self and future possibilities.

We had a four and a half hour break through the day from lunch, which we put to good use.  We did a five hour hike from the Monastery of Panagia Hozoviotissa (oldest in Greece) to the port town of  Aegali on mine and Ken’s birthday (made very special by our mat buddies and yogi) and Karen, Tracy, Bron and I had hired a car for a day giving us an opportunity to go further afield and to get a taste of the little villages in the nearby hills – sleepy and whisper quiet; delightful.  Of course there was time didn’t in the steam room and saltwater float pool!

Amorgos is known for its natural beauty. Hence you find people exploring the trails of the hills, which are covered in herbs such as thyme and sage. The island prides itself on distilling its herbs for sale – waste not want not!  With that in mind we visited the herb distillery in the nearby Lagkada village – of course couldn’t leave without a few purchases.

A final dip in the sea before our last supper complete with Greek music and joining in for the Greek dancing.  Of course Zorba turned up!

Not only had I got to be blissed out for seven days, I’d found a new friend and Nia. My room mate for the week, Bron, was a kiwi now living in Scotland who instructs Nia (healing dance movement). We had gotten on like a house on fire and I knew I now had a reason to visit Scotland!

It was hard to let go of this wonderful place but I knew I’d see these beautiful people again on their mats and I had five nights in Santorini with Deb, Jeff, Marie and Al to look forward to!  With the possibility of a reunion with fellow mat buddies Tracey and Bron…bonus!


The first view of our hotel!


Feeling very special


Our yoga and meditation shala sitting high and overlooking the beautiful beach. 



Karen and Bron 



Panagia Hozoviotissa Monastery – oldest in Greece



I’ve got this!


Shepherd’s shelter 



I don’t know…you?


Hike birthday cake for me and Ken



Feeling relieved the destination is finally in sight!



Ken and I getting our birthday wishes 


Serenaded by a wonderful violinist 


Path decorations throughout Lagkada village



Float pool in wet spa 


Off on our sightseeing day – site used to film La Grande Bleu


…and another one 


Little marina we stumbled upon 



Thankfully Tracy had her eyes peeled for the wreck – a little hike to get in 


Byzantine Church



The inconspicuous herb distillery 



Bron on a fact finding mission 



Raj – thought he’d look like one of the girls if he wore Bron’s hat



Our last sunset on Amorgos 




Our last Amorgos sunrise!


Our farewell cheerleaders



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In search of The Oracle…

A smooth arrival into Athens!  Time to sit on a bus for four days and be told where to be and when. I was looking forward to the rest from the logistics of travel!

Our Greek guide, Joy, was very knowledgeable and entertaining. We learnt early that six of the 11 million people in Greece live in Athens (explained the traffic) and that it’s the 3rd most mountainous country after Norway and Albania. As a consequence it is very picturesque.

Our first stop was at the Corinth Canal.  Was once a widely used commercial passage but not wide enough these days for the large ships so mainly used for touristic purposes. I was surprised to hear that Greece has the largest commercial fleet in the world.  The Canal had essentially created one more of the more than 3 000 islands of Greece the Peloponnese. This one being part of the 10% that are inhabited!

The next stop was to the Acropolis of Mycenae (13 to 15 century BC). The king lived in his palace at the top while the people of the community lived around it. Unlike most arrangements the necropolis (burial place) was built inside the walls of the Acropolis – most likely because it contained a fair amount of gold (14kgs recovered in masks, etc). We entered through the well preserved Lion’s Gate which was mentioned in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (his writings had helped archaeologists identity the site).

On the other side of the field we found the Treasury of Atreus; a Mycenaean tomb believed to belong to the last royal dynasty (Agamemnon) it was the last tomb built. The inside was shaped like a cone, achieved by building the blocks around a hill before excavating the internal dirt. The capstone was obviously the most critical component holding it all together. I was getting lovely memories of helping Paula build the earthbag house back in Colombia!

Back on the road until we reached Epidaurus – birthplace of Apollo’s son Asclepius – the healer – featuring the ancient theatre that accommodates up to 14 000 people and the former healing centre of classical Greece. The limestone construction was just one of the methods that were used to help project the voices of the performers.

Our last stop for the day was Nafplio, a lovely seaside town surrounded by three fortresses – one at sea and two on the hills. A mark of the occupation of the Venetians.

Day two started early for a trip to Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games. It was quite surreal getting an overview of the Olympic village, gymnasiums and hotels. The Olympics started as a festival to Zeus in 770 BC and ended in 392 AD when devout Christians banned the non-Christian festival. They were held every four years, lasted for five days and included the sacrifice of 100 oxen, which were served to the spectators. As a consequence of the athletes conducting their sport nude there were only male participants and spectators!

The modern Olympic Games were started again in Athens in 1896 on the suggestion of a French baron after Olympia was re-discovered. It wasn’t until 1924 that women joined the Games!

The stadium was more like the old Gabba Hill!  Seating capacity of 45 000 on the grass hill (no stone seating, which would have been too hard and heated up too much).

The site was an impressive 13 000 square metres.

There were strict rules of the Games including fasting for a week before your event (no eggs, meat, etc). The alternative for drug testing of the day was faeces testing to confirm athletes hadn’t broken their fasting rules!  Another rule was that there were to be no wars for 3 months before the Games. A heavy price was paid if not complied with – city would be banned from the Games forever.

Leaving the Peloponnese we headed for the earth’s bellybutton – Delphi. Considered such by the ancient Greeks based on what they knew geographically to exist at the time. To get there we drive through Greece’s largest olive grove – 1.2 million trees in the grove.

Before reaching the Apollo sanctuary we visited the shrine of Athena Pronea. A place for Goddess Athena to protect her half brother Apollo. Said to have been achieved when a well timed earthquake prevented the Persians from reaching the area.

The large site further up the hill containing the Sanctuary of Apollo dates back to 1600 – 1100 BC but the buildings standing today are mainly from around 6th century BC. It was at this site that the Oracle was sought out to predict or read the future. The prophecies were communicated through the priestesses who would be in a trance-like state as a consequence of the natural gas (presence of Mother Earth – Gaia) leaking from within the temple. The prophecies were said to be read though the clouds, water, wind, flames or other such mediums.

The site included the place occupied by nine goddesses (called muses) who received the art presented to the god Apollo…museum!

The Treasury of Athens was reconstructed to celebrate the victory of the Battle of  Marathon against the Persians in 490 BC (the one where the barefoot and naked soldier ran non-stop to announce the victory to the king and then dropped dead!).

The site contained a wall that was more than 2 600 years old – surviving numerous earthquakes as a result of its ingenious design of interlocking rocks.

We left this important historical site with the message of Apollo that the most important thing in life was ‘To know thyself’. Nothing much has changed there!

Last day of the tour directed us away from the ancient Greeks towards the monastic communities of Meteora.

Monastic communities had been established in the north of Greece more than 2 000 years ago. The communities we were visiting had existed in some form or another for about 700 years. There were only six of the 24 of Meteora monasteries  left operating and two operated as convents.

They were nothing short of spectacular perched on top of the 400m high rock pinnacles. It was hard to believe they were accessed by removable ladders or windlass (pulley system) until the 1920s when stairs were cut into the stones. Just a few challenging safety issues presented during construction and use!  Might explain why they only had about ten monks/nuns in each monastery/convent!

The churches were brightly decorated internally with religious frescoes depicting the rather gruesome tales of the saints  

It had been quite a packed four days and I’d thoroughly enjoyed it. The tour group was larger than I generally preferred to travel with but it had been a good mix of nationalities. South Australian farmers Lisa and Neil and Dan and Claudette from Canada had been particularly lovely travel companions.  The other added bonus was that I’d had my grandfather travelling with me as I recalled all the Greek mythology he’d shared with us as kids. 

The ultimate dedication to Athena, the Acropolis! There was a strike scheduled for the day of our departure to Amorgos Island so our wonderful yogi, Craig, had arranged for us to leave a day early to avoid it. So I decided to visit the 4 000 year old site before heading to the port for our island break.

Having been first inhabited 4 000 – 3 000 BC in Mycenaean times, it’s fair to say a very important ancient site in the western ancient world. I got goose bumps walking through the site and listening to the stories from my guide.

At the time of its construction it took 13 years to build the Parthenon and 37 years the complete set of temples.  A respectable result from a city of only 160 000 inhabitants.

Now onto Amorgos Island…


The Corinth Canal – completed 1893 but not too useful today at only 21m wide


The acropolis of Mycenae – 1350 BC



The lion gate – mentioned in Homer’s Iliad



Necropolis of ‘Golden Mycenae’ (14kgs of gold found in masks and other items)



Tomb of last royal dynasty of Mycenaens – Agamemnon’s family



The ceiling capstone that holds it all together


Theatre of Epidaurus – holds 14 000 people – still used today for performances



One of the three Nafplio Venetian forts




…and the other


Olympia – home of the first games


Some students capturing the Olympic spirit



Smooth part of column used by wrestlers to rub off the sand stuck to their oiled up bodies



Stadium entry


Challenging Jackson on the sprint start line



The spot where the torch is lit for the games every 4 years


Temple of Zeus – the Olympic God



Just do it!



Olive oil tasting…and maybe a little red!



The vast olive grove out to the sea


Pretty Village if Delphi



The Shrine of Athena Pronea


Delphi – home of the Oracle



The Treasury of Athens



The stadium at the very top of the site – had obviously escaped the wrath of former invaders



Ingenious construction resulting in this wall standing 2 500 years despite numerous earthquakes



Approaching Meteora


One of the six monastic communities still operating in the Meteora



The 700 year old Holy Monastery of the Great Meteoro – The Transfiguration of Our Saviour



Landing spot for the windlass (basket pulled up the side of the mountain to give  monks access



The monks clearly liked their vino!



The kitchen



Holy Monastery of St Stephen (Convent – 400 years old)



The Acropolis


Theatre of Dionysus


Temple of Nike


Missed Florence and the Machine at the Herodion last night!



The gate to the Acropolis



The Parthenon



Temple of Athena



Admiring the beautiful yachts in Piraeus Marina


Farewell Athens – it’s Island time!





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Nearly skipped Malta…

The flight out of Saint Petersburg was delayed so I was a little concerned I’d miss my Riga (Latvia) connection to Malta. The flight attendant assured me the very small airport would allow a successful 15 minute transit given I already had a boarding pass. Possibly would have if we hadn’t been locked in the flight gangway for 5 minutes before a security guard finally woke up to it and let us out. Of course this also had to be the only airport in the world where security searches all cabin baggage to ensure prohibited liquids are not being carried. Needless to say the gate was well and truly closed when I arrived to it panting from my running through the supposedly ‘small’ airport.

A four hour sleep at a local hotel and I was back at the airport for my 6am flight. There were no direct flights available so I was going through Frankfurt. I was relieved when our flight left on time. I’d lost half a day so when I arrived at my accommodation mid afternoon I simply dropped my bags and headed off to visit the fortress capital city Valletta.

My grandfather had talked of the brave Knights of St John piquing my interest in Malta at a young age, which intensified after my friends Karen and Michael visited his family back when we were in our 20s. It was the Micallefs who’d introduced me to the Pastizzi and I thought of them fondly when I bit into my first one on Malta!

Valletta had been established by the Knights; a religious group of noblemen from all over Europe. The bastions surrounding the city were very impressive and looked pretty impenetrable.

St John’s Co-Cathedral (sharing Cathedral status with that of St Paul’s in Mdina (Malta’s earlier capital)) was a beautiful baroque style and houses a couple of Caravaggio paintings, the largest and most famous being The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. The floor is laid with a patchwork of marble tomb slabs (I believe those of some of the knights).

The Grand Master of the Knights of St John had his own residence, which is preserved to illustrate the opulence of the former state rooms (still used on occasion by the president for meetings with heads of state) and the former stables are used to present the armoury collection. The Knights are famous for about 350 of them fending off a sustained attack by an incredibly large Turkish contingency in mid 1500s. The course of history would have been so very different had the Europeans lost control of this important location to the Ottoman Empire. Hence promised but delayed reinforcements were finally sent in the nick of time.

I’d just made the opening times of these key sights so the pressure was off for the rest of the evening. The city was one of the first master planned cities of Europe so it was quite lovely to wander around the shaded streets, visiting the lower Barrakka gardens and then the upper to catch the cliff top lift 58m down to sea level for a ferry across to the three cities – il-Birgu (now called Vittoriosa – former home of the Knights), Bormla (now Cospicua) and l-Isla (now Senglea).

I couldn’t get enough of the lovely balconies of Malta. I even had a couple in conversation across the road from each other oblige me for a photograph.

Night was starting to fall so I was getting to enjoy the subtly lit sandstone buildings as I made my way back to my accommodation in Msida. I needed rest for my adventure to Blue Lagoon the next day!

The bus trip to the boat was great – following the coast line for views of all the coastal towns abuzz with tourists (there certainly seemed to be more tourists and expats in Malta than Maltese). The ‘beach areas’ were about as big as a postage stamp compared to ours!

Blue Lagoon (at Comino Island) was just stunning. It was famed for being part of the film location for the likes of The Count of Monte Christo.

I took the option of the speedboat caves tour, which was a bit of fun and then went off to Gozo for a tour for a couple of hours where the highlight was the Il-Kastell (Cittadella) – a well preserved fortress with lovely views across the island. All of the inhabitants of the island had sheltered there during the siege by the Turks in the mid 1500s. I took the opportunity to enjoy my last dinner in Malta overlooking the lovely Valletta.

With a mid afternoon flight I had just a few hours left on my last day to see a bit more of Malta so I jumped on a bus to Mdina, fortified about 1000BC. The current name hails from the occupation of the Arabs (evident everywhere across the main island).  It was lovely and quiet before all of the tourists arrived.

Mdina sat beside Rabat in which the St Paul’s Catacombs were located.  Who doesn’t love to check out underground burial sites?  They were impressive – said to cover more than 2000 square metres. They were created in the third century AD and used for about 500 years. Some were clearly for individuals, some for groups (babies and small children were believed to be buried together) and some were for the pots containing the ashes of cremated persons (those who couldn’t afford body burial). Apparently there was evidence that it was the burial site of multi religious denominations (with the denominations generally buried together) suggesting a very multicultural and peaceful society of the times. The catacombs had also been used as shelters for inhabitants during the world wars.

The Second World War has been particularly hard for Malta. It had received more sustained bombings than any other country of the commonwealth. For its valour Malta was awarded the George Cross; never before and never again has this honour been bestowed upon a whole county.

Well, I’d found my knights as I’d hoped, sadly just a little too late to bring one home with me!  Perhaps I’d find myself a Greek god on the next leg…


Approaching Valletta


St John’s Co-cathedral


Marble tomb slabs – the knights?!?!



Caravaggio’s The Beheading of John the Baptist



State rooms of the Grand Master’s Palace



The Armoury



The lovely Maltese balconies


Lower Barrakka Gardens



A joke surely??



Views from the bastion walls at the Upper Barrakka Gardens














Off to the Blue Lagoon



Ducking in the caves


Blue Lagoon



Gozo Island, Cittadella



Stunning view to enjoy over dinner


Entry gate of Mdina





St Paul’s Catacombs





A bit of a tight squeeze


View back to Mdina


Farewell lovely Msida







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Saint Petersburg, city of ….

Catching the sleeper train to Saint Petersburg seemed like a no brainer. Maximise daylight sightseeing hours while at the time absorbing accommodation cost in the train ticket!  What I had forgotten about sleeper trains is that they are noisy with the grinding from stopping and starting and people chatting loudly in front of your cabin door, jerky, vibrate to your bones, serve terrible food and have hard beds. Would I do it again…probably – being the stingy traveller that I am.

I’d been warned by my airbnb host that a taxi would cost about five times more than a Yandex (Uber competitor) from the train station but could I get the app to work!?!?  It seemed stuck on Moscow. Eventually a ticket officer accompanied me to the pick up area, ordered one and sent me on my way.

I arrived at the accommodation at 8am  and was due to meet my tour guide out front of the Hermitage at 10am.

After chatting with my host’s aunt (in a weird twist the artist owner was in Australia for a wedding) I got myself sorted and ventured off with the goal to find a clear pick up spot from which to order my Yandex. Yandex problems again!  I was cutting it fine for time as we had boat seats booked so I started to get a little worried. This time I attempted to get assistance from a delivery driver waiting for an order at a shop window. He had no English and while he tried his best to understand he gave up and signalled for me to wait five minutes. Next thing I was in his (Vadim’s) delivery truck on route to the square. He sweetly tried to point out some key sights on route which of course I just smiled and nodded in appreciation. He refused to take any cash, putting it back in my pocket as I exited. Russians initially show little expression on their faces but I had worked out that behind that they were very friendly.

Saint Petersburg was eight degrees colder than it was when I checked the week of my departure!  I certainly had not packed for eight degrees; the rain wasn’t helping.

I met my guide Maria at Alexander Column, reportedly the largest single piece of stone in the world (standing just short of 50m), which is held upright by gravity alone, and we quickly headed down to the Neva River to catch our hydrofoil to Peterhof Palace.

Scooting across the Gulf of Finland was the quickest route to the Palace. The palace had been pretty much re-built after the damage caused by the Germans in WWII. The interior of the Tsars’ Palace was beautiful but it was the some 140 gravity fed fountains that were truly lovely. The most splendorous reflecting Peter the Great’s victory over the Swedes in early 1700s with him pulling apart the jaws of a lion (the Swedes). The Russian art was full of allegories – each with a clearly intended story.

Back in St Petersburg we wandered under the triumphal arch and down Nevsky Prospect passing the high fashion houses and their branded Porsches out the front. While I wasn’t tempted to poke my head into them for a look (I couldn’t quite pull off the whole pretty woman manoeuvre) I couldn’t resist a russian donut!  Yum!

I learnt along the way to the Kazan Cathedral (modelled partly on Rome’s St Peters) that while stone was the prominent building product of St Petersburg buildings it was being ravaged by humidity (was hard to believe when it was so cold). I also learnt that St Petersburg was made up of some 40 odd islands, which has led to more than 340 bridges! City of stone, City of islands, City of bridges???

St Petersburg has its colourful Russian orthodox onion domes in the form of the Savior on Spilled Blood. The church had been built on the spot that Tsar Alexander II had been fatally wounded by protestors in the late 1800s. It was full of beautiful mosaic pieces and of course a place marking the spot where Alexander’s blood had spilt.

A moment to rest our feet as we travelled by metro to the Peter and Paul Fortress. These were without a doubt the deepest metros I had been in – the escalators travelling for more than two minutes.  Might not sound a lot but think about that next time you’re on one and you’ll realise what I’m talking about.

The fortress was not ever used as a fortress but certainly looked the part. The cathedral within the fortress walls now holds the remains of the last Tsar and his family of Romanovs (although two of the family members are yet to be laid to rest here).

It was here that I farewelled Maria to go on to visit the Hermitage. Thankfully it was open until 9pm on Fridays so I had a couple of hours to take in the amazing collection. The Hermitage is in the beautiful Winter Palace and has essentially only ever served as an art gallery (except during wars of course when the art was shipped off to be preserved). It would be impossible to see even the fraction of the three million pieces held but I certainly got to appreciate some beauties in my two hours. The Rembrandts always a favourite and I enjoyed the Russian renaissance paintings as well  

I was so tired on exiting that I absentmindedly found myself in a restaurant ordering mulled wine with my dinner. It was delightful – served infused in dried fruit. Perfect to send me on my way home.

Having seen nearly all of the key sights on day one I decided I had the luxury of time to visit Tsarskoe Selo (the Tsar’s Village) to see the Catherine Palace. Thankfully Maria had managed to fix my Yandex location so I was on the go again.

My Yandex driver seemed a little more lost than I was, which was a worry, and then he attempted to drive into a one way street to be confronted by a police officer on the corner. We pulled over at the officer’s request and the driver first put his seat belt on and then produced numerous dockets followed by a few notes from his wallet and then we were on our way again.

Peter the Great had presented the Palace to his wife Catherine I before their marriage but it wasn’t until the mid 1750s that it became the elaborate Palace as seen today when their daughter Empress Elizabeth Petrova engaged Italian architect Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli to rebuild it as her summer residence.

As expected the interior of the Palace was beautiful but it was the Amber Room that was the particular drawcard for this palace. It was like nothing I’d seen before. All of the walls of the room were faced with Amber stone with decorations in the form of reliefs and illustrations – quite surreal. Another post war reconstruction but given the throngs of tourists I imagined it had paid off quickly. Amber is considered lucky by the Chinese so you can imagine their ogling eyes when in the room, with a few trying to sneak photos only to be sternly cautioned by palace staff about potential ejection from the Palace.

It was so cold I decided to head home after the palace visit but once back in Saint Petersburg I got distracted by the steady stream of people coming from a nearby street blocked off for road work. I decided to explore the source and to my delight found what’s called the New Holland precinct. Within a park was a circular building with a round central open courtyard surrounded by bars/cafes on the lowest level and shops of Russian designers on the two above.

I found a bar that was clad with dark brick walls and dim lighting and settled in at a bar table for a beer or two. Not long after sitting a woman seated beside me offered me some of her salted cucumber. Having seen that I enjoyed it she then offered me a fork with some of the dried fish from her plate. It was tasty too.

Through google translate I discovered her name was Nina and she was a Russian nurse holidaying in Saint Petersburg for a few days. She google translated that Russians don’t like to drink alone (explaining her offer of the food). The menu was in Russian so I asked her to point out the dishes she had ordered and the red drink (turned out to be a vodka tincture of beetroot and horseradish). Delish!  The vodka drinking began…  I had been contemplating a visit to the ballet that night but this turned out to be a great way to spend my last night in Russia.

I woke late on my final day …with a bit of a fuzzy head…with the goal of visiting St Isaacs Cathedral and getting a souvenir of Russia. I succeeded in both but it was a real challenge given the weather. It was now six degrees and the misted rain was blowing sideways strongly in all directions. Despite this I took the option to venture up to the colonnade for the lovely view out over Saint Petersburg. It was worth the effort and getting wet – a final look at this lovely city.

The inside of the Cathedral was quite incredible. It had taken 40 years to build the Cathedral, which the previously unknown French architect Montferrand got to see completed a month before his death. The cathedral (which served more as a museum than church) had lovely little kiosks inside where I picked up a lovely amber necklace as a momento of my visit.

I decided to enjoy some more local food for my final meal in Russia, this time I focused on Armenian. It was so lovely and cosy I was reluctant to leave but alas I had a flight to catch.

I farewelled my hat of over 28 years. It had been a saviour in this cold weather. It was nice to think it had started life at the Sydney Paddington markets and would finish life on the other side of the world.

Saint Petersburg had been a lovely city to visit with its opulent architecture and rich imperial history. Certainly a great contrast to Moscow.  It was surprising I’d only met one other Australia – he was from the Hunter Valley and had been living in Russia for five years and now worked in a Saint Petersburg souvenir shop.

I felt a great warmth for the Russians given all of my experiences during the trip…memories that would last a long time. I was now on to find myself a knight…


Vladim, the delivery driver who got me to my guide!


Peterhof Palace 



A little bed for the Tsar



Alexander Column – world’s largest column of stone. Freestanding on its own weight. 



The beautiful Winter Palace – home of The Hermitage art collection


A former merchant’s home


Testing out the ponchinki- russian donuts!


Kazan Cathedral



The art nouveau Zinger building



Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood



Captivating mosaics



The site when Tsar Alexander II was fatally wounded. 


Peter and Paul Fortress 



Homage to Peter the Great. A mould of his face but a grotesque body intended to emphasise his greatness. 



Cathedral of Tsars



Romanov family tombs – family of the last Tsar of Moscow



Catherine Palace



Pushkin church



Entering the New Holland district 


Perfecting vodka drinking



My partner in crime ..Nina the nurse


A little beetroot and horseradish tincture of vodka!



No chance on my own!


Cherry brandy – delicious!



St Isaacs Cathedral



From the Colonnade



A model of the scaffolding system used to lift the columns 



Last feast at Dolma, Armenian restaurant 



Just in case you forget!


Couldn’t leave without trying the caviar!  Sophisticated airport food!




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On Golden Ring

I always feel a great sense of reward when I manage to navigate public transport in foreign countries. …or perhaps I’m confusing reward with relief!  Travelling solo is extremely liberating but I know my anxiety is much reduced when I have a fellow traveller (or any random English speaking person) with whom to confirm conclusions. Despite all of this I’ve always managed to arrive at the intended destination at the planned time.

This time it was Vladimir – which after being corrected a couple of hundred times I now know to pronounce as Vlad-i-meerr!

I’d arrived here to experience the Russian orthodox towns on the famed Golden Ring. After finding my accommodation I was back on public transport – this time the bus on my way to Suzdal about an hour from Vladimir. After a bit of prompting with hand gestures from my fellow bus buddies I managed to avoid the 2km walk into town by staying on the bus a little longer. It seemed the further you got from the major cities the less English was spoken, even by the young, but the people were as friendly as others.

Suzdal had been bypassed by the Trans-Siberian rail line in 1894 and in doing so time had stood still. It was full of cute little wooden houses, some colourful and some with interesting carvings. It was also full of wonderful old historical buildings.

My first stop was the Savior Monastery of St Euthymius. It had been established in the 14th century as more of a protectorate of the town’s north from invaders. It included an interesting prison that had held religious dissidents. The monastery had also been used by the bolsheviks as a concentration camp after the tzars had been unseated in the 1917 revolution and it had then been used to keep German and Italian officers during WWII. The exhibition halls were full of ornaments – religious and agricultural – unfortunately no English translations.

The trading arcades are still being used for that purpose although the fruits and veggies have been replaced with souvenir stalls!

The Suzdal Kremlin is the grandfather of Moscow’s Kremlin having been built in the 12th century by the then ruling prince who later established Moscow as an outpost!  The Kremlin housed the lovely Nativity of the Virgin Cathedral, which was adorned with lovely blue domes with gold stars and an interior rich in frescoes.

Across the picturesque river was the Museum of Wooden Architecture and Peasant Life. The buildings are from the 1700s and gave you the feeling you were in an Amish community. It was very quaint and I was feeling quite privileged to own a bed with a latex mattress!

On arriving back to Vladimir I found lots of people out enjoying the very comfortable weather so I got amongst it by trying the Russian drink kvass, which is made from rye bread. It was like a sweet porter beer (and from what I understood I had tried the non-sweet variety) – not for me I’m afraid.

My last day in Vladimir was spent visiting the very grand Assumption Cathedral, which sits on a bluff giving great views, the water tower, the Vladimir Golden Gate (part fort part triumphal arch) and the Cathedral of St Dmitry. What St Dmitry lacked in size it made up with its ornate stone carvings on the exterior walls. It had been built in late 1100 and believed to never have been matched by other Russian stone carvers.

The little side trip had been very worthwhile…although my feet and legs were screaming at me with all the walking. They’d now get a rest as I prepared to board a sleeper train for Saint Petersburg…



Inside the Savior Monastery of St Euthymius



The monastery prison 



The somewhat deserted Monastery of the Deposition of the Holy Robe



The trading arcades overlooking the river and meadows



Nativity of the Virgin Cathedral in the Kremlin



Inside the walls of the Suzdal Kremlin



The Museum of  Wooden Architecture and Peasant Life



More swinging…