No. of Recommendations: 9
At Sea – August 18, 2012
Valletta, Malta – August 19, 2012
The modern Maltese language is a mixture of Arabic and Italian which describes its recent history. In 1528, Charles V of Spain granted the island of Malta to the Knights of the Order of St. John. Many impressive 16th-century limestone buildings and fortifications from the Knights have endured, helping make the city of Valetta impressive to experience today. We head to St. John's Cathedral, founded by the Knights of the Order of St. John during the 16th century. Today the cathedral is the final resting place for many of the knights - their headstones line the cathedral floor.
We head off to explore the Palace of the Grand Masters, completed in the late 16th century. It contains portraits of the Grand Masters of the Order and European monarchs, interesting furniture, works of art and an historical arms collection. We then stroll through the Upper Barrakka Gardens and enjoy the magnificent panoramic view of Grand Harbor. For me, Malta is all about the views.
I once had a Maltese employee by the name of Joe Azzapardi. While walking through a market famous for handmade lace (on a previous trip here) I noticed a sign on a shop with the same name. When I asked if they were related I found out that apparently 15% or more of the population sported the same family name. They are apparently in the jewelry business and there are more jewelry stores name “something” Azzapardi as there are Ray’s “Something” (first, original, best, genuine, etc.) pizzerias in NYC. Oh the lace? Pretty expensive, but fascinating to see how it is made by hand (But MIA because it’s Sunday).

As can be expected on an island, Maltese food is both expensive, rustic and full of fish and seafood. Pastry is commonly used to encase vegetables, cheese, fish, meat, rice and pasta, producing tasty and filling dishes. An example is Lampuki pie - filleted dorado mixed with spinach, cauliflower, olives and capers in a shortcrust pastry. It has an unusual strong and delicious flavor. Spinach and anchovy pies also have a distinctive taste and are very popular, as is timpana, an everyday concoction of pasta in meat sauce topped with a layer of pastry. Rabbit is apparently the most popular meat dish in Malta, usually served stewed or fried in wine and garlic.

The pushcarts which normally crowd the pedestrian streets are gone because it is Sunday with their only vestige being the small metal plates showing each of their parking spaces. We passed a church filled with obviously African men and women (we were told that they were “foreigners”) who all removed their footwear and line them at the doorway outside the church the way you would do at a mosque (it’s interesting how customs transcend religion). The main cathedral is on of the most ornate that I have ever seen. They are rebuilding one of the city gates into a huge theatre.

As we cruise out, I admire the fortress’ which is and surrounds the city of Valletta. It has fallen numerous times but still looks imposing.

I’m sort of babying my stomach. I had a medical issue of an apparently infected gall bladder (likely with stones) which caused me an exceedingly painful night and an early morning visit to the ship’s physician. He proscribed Cipro, Prilosec and some sort of vile tasting anti-spasmodic elixir (which was labeled “grape flavored”, but if that’s the case wine would never have been invented). Apparently I shouldn’t eat fatty foods, drink alcohol, eat milk products or go out in the sun until I get an ultrasound in the States, so I’m looking forward to either spending the next month locked in a room eating bread and water or else disobeying doctor’s orders: The cost of the visit and the assorted drugs was about $350 which is likely covered by my travel insurance – I hope.

Catania, Sicily – August 20, 2012
Mt. Etna, one of the biggest active volcanoes in Europe lies north of Catania. This mountain lives, breathes and transforms itself with lava flows continuing to change the mountain’s profile. The landscape changes greatly as you go higher towards the principal crater. Catania was destroyed in the 17th Century and it was rebuilt in the 18th Century. To the people who live here, the volcano is simply part of the backdrop (as Vesuvius is to those living south of Naples).
With a variety of parks and natural reserves, it’s easy to take a walk on the natural side and enjoy time spent in the great outdoors.
Back in my speckled youth (as a small child) I used to be able to communicate pretty easily in Sicilian dialect, but apparently the mind breaks the connections if you don’t practice over the decades (oh well, just one more thing forgotten).
So, what’s to see? Well, the Cathedral, of course, which is dedicated to the city’s Patron, Santa Agata and reconstructed with the use of material recovered from the buildings of the Roman era. The Piazza Duomo – Surrounded by the Palazzo Senatoria and elegant buildings arranged around the Fontana dell’Elefante, the symbol of the city. The Collegiata – A magnificent example of the architectonic splendor built during the 18th century, with the interior decorated by Giuseppe Sciuti. That said, the city is not the high point of the cruise (being polite here).
I grew up eating Sicilian and Neapolitan food in Brooklyn. So I headed to the open air fish and vegetable market (fish is on stands closer to the shore) – eggplant is in season and about $.55 a pound and rests on piles of plum tomatoes, onions, bunches of basil, etc. in the market. The wife always complains when my shoes smell of fish, but I counter that I never interfere with her choice of perfume. The wife does not have anything resembling a sense of humor. The cuisine of Catania makes me feel at home. An unusual technique of meat roasts is the addition of "oranges" made of crunch rice balls stuffed in the middle (think along the lines of the Arabic kibbe). Of course there’s the expected variety of traditional fish dishes that range from sea salads, shells seasoned with a sprinkling of lemon to fish fries of newborn mullets, accompanied by onions. Octopus is big here. The pastries run the gamut of Sicilian cassata, martorana fruit based on almond paste, monaca buscuits, nougat torroncini and Santa Agata raisins – and of course canolli’s.

Naples, Italy – August 21, 2012
Sicilians do not have a love of Naples (a common “curse” is va fi naple or “go to naples”) and they think the singers here wail too much (think of O sola mia), but I’ve always liked the place. It’s a cultural center filled with the “normal” compliment of churches, masterpieces, Greek and Roman styled buildings that any other major city around here has.
We are going to be approaching Naples from a different direction from what a first time visitor should do. Given time, it would make sense to take a train or bus to either (preferably both) Pompeii or Herculaneum (a smaller, but more upper class city). These are two of the most famous excavation sites in the world. Thriving cities 1,900 years ago, they were devastated by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. when 30 feet of volcanic ash and pumice stone covered them. Another common side trip is taking the ferry to Capri or the hydrofoil to one of the towns along the Amalfi coast (Positano being one of the more popular ones). Another option would be to rent a car and drive down the Amalfi coast. This one of the world’s most exciting – let’s call it breathtaking - roads to drive (though I think the road linking the Grande Corniche to the Moyenne Corniche through La Turbie has more of a video game feel to it). If this doesn’t get the adrenalin pumping in a driver (not to mention the passengers ? ), nothing will. In our case, we’ve done all that in the past and it frees us to discover parts of Naples we haven’t driven through or walked through in the past.
As we were walking with a couple of Kiwis who had never seen a royal palace before, we condescendingly agreed to visit the Royal Palace (4 Euros a head). Boy am I glad we did as the interior was magnificent. I would encourage anyone who comes to Naples to take the time out to see this place.

Ah, the food! Pizza was invented in Naples, and there are plenty of authentic pizzerias to choose from (we select an international chain named Rossa Pomadoro, that we ate at in Venice which makes a decent pizza). Spigola (sea bass) is the most popular fish here, and you'll find it served steamed and baked. For dessert, we introduce a couple of Kiwi’s to sfogliatella at a pastry shop, a delicious clam-shaped cheese filled Neapolitan pastry and a laragusta coda (lobster tail) – a similar, but longer shell filled with whatever you want (my preference is cannoli cream or else lemon cream) which weighs in at a couple of pounds of pastry ?.

We pack for our last flight (Rome to Brussels). With each airline adhering to different rules, packing has become an art form. El Al weighed our carry-on’s but allowed a woman’s handbag. Easyjet had a strict prohibition against a separate purse or laptop bag, but didn’t care how much hand luggage weighed (as long as the size limitation was adhered to. Brussels Air (our last carrier) has a 6KG weight limit on carry-on luggage (about what my empty bag weighs), but allows a free purse, laptop bag, reading material and jackets. So the contents of the carry-ons will be carried separately until after check-in when they will be reassembled. It’s all a pretty silly (but potentially expensive) game.

Civitavecchia (Rome), Italy – August 22, 2012
We’re not staying in Rome though in retrospect, we probably should have spent a night at our favorite hotel – the Sofitel (we’ve been using the place since it was the Hotel Boston years ago) which is close to everything, but just far enough not to be priced in the stratosphere. Anyhow, we’ve booked a car service (www.romcabs.com) to bring us to the airport. A metered cab would run about 100 Euros and these guys are charging 120 Euro, but we have to leave at 7AM sharp to be sure to make the flight out of Rome’s Fiumicino Airport on Brussels’ Airlines (who uses the same SN symbol of the old Sebina) to Brussels, Belgium. We ended up sharing the Mercedes mini-van with two other couples at a total cost of &èà Euros.
For those who have never been here, Rome is awesome. We are skipping it only because we have spent time here twice in the past three years (but I still feel guilty).
For those with more time (at least more brains), the train into Rome takes less than 1 ½ hours and leaves you at Termini (the main train station). From there, the Pantheon (one of my favorites), the Coliseum, the Forum, St. Peters with its Sistine Chapel, the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain etc., etc. are mixed with the shopping of the Via Condotti and the artichoke laden food of the Jewish quarter. Or stop at any of thousands of restaurants for Bucatini all'Amatricana, a thick spaghetti in a tangy tomato and bacon sauce, which is associated with Rome. Osso Bucco, also popular (and a favorite of mine), is a casserole of veal shank flavored with garlic, tomatoes and wine. For dessert, try ricotta cake, a form of cheesecake, or sfingi, a liqueur-soaked zeppole (deep fried spongy pastry) covered with Zuppa Inglese custard and a cherry made during the feast of St. Joseph (the patron saint of pastry chefs).

Seeing icons like the Coliseum used as a traffic circle is disconcerting to the first time visitor, but Rome, like Paris, New York, London, Tokyo, Shanghai and the like should rank right up there with visiting the Pyramids, Matchu Pichu, Angkor Wat and other bucket list items. But, ce’est la vie, it’s off to the Manneken Pis.
Brussels, Belgium - August 22-28, 2012

The Clap: As the plane landed, there was silence, as if the presumption of a safe landing is to be taken for granted. This practice is followed in many countries (including the United States. There are, however many countries around the Mediterranean where the passengers feel so relieved that the pilot has actually managed to land the plane that a loud round of applause is generated.

On traveling by train in Europe: First the good news is that trains are generally on time, very convenient (from city center to city center), comfortable and reasonably priced. The bad news is that the station levels are generally a few feet below the level of the train with a few narrow stairs. There is no one to help with your luggage in most cases (and in others the alternative is to place your bags in the hand of Gypsies who help for a few Euros). Either you must lift your bags above your seat into luggage racks or leave them somewhere on the train out of sight. The best advice I can offer (even if you are a 20 year old kid with a knapsack) is MAKE SURE YOU CAN HANDLE YOUR BAGS UP/DOWN STAIRS WITHOUT SPLITTING A GUT. The best way is to make sure you can easily carry your bags up two flights of stairs – if not; shed contents until you can or else figure out a different mode of transportation. I used expensive taxi or limo services of one sort or another at various time during this trip, but should have used them more frequently for “last mile” transfers – lesson learned the hard way.

We’re staying at the Aloft Brussels Shulman. This is probably the least expensive hotels of the trip (they really lowballed the price when we booked was 111 Euros a night, prepaid), but it’s a modern, clean business class hotel and while not as ritzy as some of the places we’ve stayed at, that would be an unfair comparison as it’s a fraction of the price. I would put its décor as that of a fancy fraternity house or the Ikea version of a Novotel. Don’t expect amenities such as drawers, closet space or shelves for clothes as apparently this is a place for transients. No gripes (well, maybe a couple), but it’s certainly different than any of the other places we’ve stayed at. The hotel is local to the center of the European Union with the imposing EU buildings of the European Commission, European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, but it is a few metro stops from the city center. The good news is that they use the same “Heavenly” mattresses that the rest of Starwood does so the bed is as comfortable as one at a Weston. That said, this is “basic hotel” and perfectly (but very spartanly) acceptable. We have decided not to rent a car as parking in Brussels is expensive and may use trains to head out to Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp and elsewhere.

Brussels is often given a bum rap as a sort of “grey” city without redeeming characteristics. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Brussels is historic and cozy. This is the heart of Flanders with its cooking having a French overlay. Much of Belgium's cuisine is similar to that of its neighbors to the north and south. Moules marinieres (marinated mussels), lapin a la biere (rabbit in beer), and croque-monsieur (ham and cheese toasted sandwich) are some of the local specialties. Belgian chocolates are considered some of the best in the world (Godiva anyone?). It has some of the world’s best coffee, was the inventor of the “French” fry (though they serve it with mayonnaise), has more brands of beer than any continent on earth and is home to northern European culture at its finest.
Buying a ten trip Metro card (13 Euros) will save lots of money and a single card may be inserted twice into the machine to validate a ride for two people. After arriving, we head off to discover Brussels by heading to the magnificent Grand Place, with its Market Square, and quaint Guild Houses. The City Hall is a masterpiece of Gothic civil architecture, and the Museum of the City of Brussels is registered along with the Grand-Place as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Royal Museum of Fine Arts features Bruegel, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Reubens & Hieronymus Bosch. Then it’s a quick peek at the beautiful St. Michael's Cathedral, the Royal Residence, the Palace of Justice, the Royal Palace and the Houses of Parliament.

Brussels, from an architectural point of view is clearly Flemish and resembles Amsterdam in many respects (though its canals have been filled in and turned into avenues). On the other hand, from a culinary point of view, there is clearly a French accent. From a demographic point of view, the indigenous Flemish and French Walloons must feel strange as it seems that over half of the population is either African (presumably from the former Belgian Congo) or Arab (not sure of ethnic distribution among this group). People generally either speak French or they speak Flemish, but it is rare to find someone who speaks both well. Each of these groups seems to look down on the other and there seems an undercurrent of discontent. I played foozeball last night (while I’m not even in the same class that I was when I put myself through school playing the game, even after a few decades, apparently the body still remembers) with a bunch of “French” kids, all of who had engineering degrees and MBA’s and dropped into the hotel for the free table and compared their views to a Flemish woman who owned a farm near Ghent and this did nothing to change my viewpoint.

We ate dinner at a restaurant with no name (literally), located on the corner of Rue Van Artevelde and Rue des Chartreux, whose customer base is primarily locals (I had a very good leg of lamb in raison sauce with a Chamay beer).

The next morning, we decided to take the train (for the hour and a half ride) to Brugge. After a breakfast of coffee and French pastries, we took the Metro to the Central Station and then had to learn the art of reading the Belgium version of departure boards. The word Brugge is from a Viking term for “wharf” or embankment. In the 14th century with, about the same population as London (about 35,000), it was northern Europe’s main cloth market. As the water channel to Brugge silted up, its port moved a few km away and is now called Zeebrugge (Sea Brugge). . The silting of the harbor by the 16th century caused everyone to lose interest and Brugge became an economic backwater where it didn’t pay to tear down the Middle Ages houses.

One of the best views of the area can be found at the Markt or Market Square. Situated at the center of the ancient walled city of Bruges, the Market is lined with 17th-century gabled houses and dominated by the 14th-century Belfort or belfry. You can climb the 350 steps to the top of this 270-foot tower for a beautiful panoramic view of the city.
It’s pleasant to walk Bruges quaint cobblestone streets and over its flower-lined canals. We admire the many beautiful bridges for which the city was named ("brugge" means bridge in Flemish) and walk past rows of spectacular gothic buildings and attractive gabled homes. The Basilica of the Holy Blood is famous for its relic of the blood of Christ, which, according to tradition, was brought to Bruges in 1150 after the Second Crusade. The City Hall has the oldest Gothic hall in the Low Countries. The fabulous wealth which was once generated allowed the purchase of one of the few Michelangelo’s outside of Italy (a Madonna and Child out of marble) which shares a cathedral with a couple of Caravaggio’s and a pair of incredible tombs of a Hapsburg emperor and his Burgundy wife. We had a low-carb lunch of French (Belgium) fries, waffles and a sandwich on buigget (French bread). Desert were some handmade chocolates from Pralines - Marie de Bruges, Walstraat, 16-18.

We took the train back at the end of the afternoon and instead of going to the hotel, did some shopping on Nieustraat (all the sales have ended so there is little worth getting excited about – so much for buying a matching suitcase to the one I picked up in Paris) and then headed to the Nortzee restaurant on Rue St. Catherine for a seafood dinner. Unfortunately, we were not aware that it was a lunch place and it closed at six as we approached. They recommended a place called the Royal at Rue de Flandre, 103 in the old fish market. Will the wife had two of the smallest soles I have ever seen (though apparently tasty), I hade muscles poached in a wine, sautéed celery and scallion bouillon with a dipping sauce made of mustard and cream, accompanied by a 10% Trappist beer (just what the doctor ordered :-). It was super.

We have decided, rather than doing the obvious (going to Gent or Antwerp, for example), we will take the 3 ½ hour train ride to Luxemburg.

This turned out to be a lovely place. The center city is actually a formidable high ground surrounded by fortresses and a circling “moat” (I think a natural ravine) hundreds of feet below. Ther is an externally ornate Grand Duke’s palace (shut due to wedding preparations for a son) guarded by a beer belied soldier (I guess things are tight or the union is strong?). The cathedral is pretty nice with a variety of stained glass windows. Similar to Belgium, there is a great deal of attention to sorting trash (even at the street garbage bin level) for recycling. The language (Luxembergish) is a German dialect.

On the way back, the wife fell on her knee and elbow, so we got a fast food restaurant to put ice into a plastic glove for a cold pack.

On the trip back, I read (in a Flemish newspaper) that diesel oil is now at an all time high price (1.59 Euro:Liter) which still seems lower than I paid elsewhere (different taxes, I guess).

We still have Ghent, Antwerp and more of Brussels to see before leaving for Amsterdam and the trek home, but we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

Jeff
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