The Schengen Area. Ever heard of it? As much as your brain wants to associate it with Japan, it actually makes up most of Europe. And if you’ve thought about traveling across the pond for an extended period of time, it’s something you should be familiar with.
The Schengen Area comprises 26 member states that have officially ceased an operational border control between each country. Expanding its zone since, the Schengen Agreement occurred 33 years ago in Schengen, Luxembourg for the purposes of creating a sole jurisdiction for country-to-country travel, with a uniform visa approach. Currently, all but 6 of the EU countries are members, with the exceptions being Cyprus, Romania, Croatia, Bulgaria, Ireland, and the UK. In addition, 4 non-EU participants, in Switzerland, Norway, Liechtenstein, and Iceland, also abide by its role.(http://biblio.ucv.ro/bib_web/bib_pdf/EU_books/0056.pdf)
“So what’s the big deal?” you might ask. Well, depending on your nationality, you might need an initial visa to be admitted into the Area, unless you’re from North America, which for these purposes, we’re going to assume that you are. So don’t worry about that commencing visa, North Americans! BUT, take heed, as a carefree jaunt between the many wonderful European-outposts may quantify into a very unfortunate situation down the road.
When we spent a month in England (picture in front of Buckingham Palace) & Scotland, we thought our time started over for Schengen (since the UK is not part of it), not realizing that it counts your time over 180 days; so our time in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland & Belgium all added to our total days in the Schengen Zone
Under Schengen policy, no outside traveler is to extend his or her stay over the allotted 90 days within a half-year period. In other words, you have a 3-month total stay over a 6-month duration inside any of the Schengen countries. We know, you were told there would be no math, but please bear with us…so, if you initially flew into France and remained for 2 weeks, visited England and Ireland for another 2 weeks, then went over and stayed in Italy for a month, you would be roughly halfway through your allotted time you could stay, as England and Ireland don’t count towards your total. You would then have about 45 days within the Area, spread over another 4 months, if you so chose. There are, though, a long-stay visa and residency permit options you could apply for in advance (see bottom link for more details).
When planning your European trip, especially if you think there’s a possibility of being there a while, be cognizant of the landscape and know exactly what countries are represented in the Zone (which are most) and neighboring states that don’t adhere to it. In addition to the UK and Ireland, another nearby country we visited was Morocco, which obviously isn’t part of Schengen, as it’s located in Africa. Thanks to our time spent in these states, we were able to sneak under our time allowed with a few days to spare (we unwisely weren’t aware of the Schengen duration-limitations until about halfway through our trip).
So what happens if I’m a few days over my 90-day limit?” you might later ask. Really, it depends on if the customs officer at the airport is having a bad day or not, or if in fact he notices the offense. If he doesn’t realize you’ve overstayed your welcome, well, you’re good to go. Likewise, if the officer sees it, but is in a good mood, he will likely convey the infraction to you and just warn you not to go over next time. However, even if only a few days, and ESPECIALLY if you’re a week or more past your 3-month limit, things could get rather serious. Contingent on the country, penalties could range into the hundreds-of-Euros. And even in some extreme cases, border control has the power to ban you for a year or longer from re-entering the Schengen Area.(http://biblio.ucv.ro/bib_web/bib_pdf/EU_books/0056.pdf)
Odds are you’re not going to spend near 3 months during your visit to Europe. Although it’s possible to spend a lifetime and not see even close to all that Europe has to offer, we get it, people get busy and can’t take off for that long. However, for some, like us, an opportunity arises where it’s possible to make the journey and spend a longer duration. And for these instances, have fun planning and experiencing your trip (it’ll be a blast!), BUT, do so with regard to your ever-running clock of time spent within the Schengen Area. Ignorance, at the immigration desk, can no longer be used as an excuse (not that it could before)!
When we left Malta for Ireland, we thought we were finished worrying about how many days we had to spare. It wasn’t until we were in Belfast that we realized we were wrong...we had already booked our cheap flight from Belfast to Reykjavik, but luckily, not our flight to the US yet. We hadn’t even thought that Iceland could be part of Schengen. So when planning our flight to the States, we had to make sure we left within our limit
Check out this site for more helpful information on the intricacies behind the Schengen Area and how it relates to your country of origin: https://www.schengenvisainfo.com/
When you think of NYC, what is the first thing that comes to mind? The Statue of Liberty? The Empire State Building? Times Square? Central Park? These most assuredly stand as triumphant symbols of the Big Apple and it's very likely any layman has heard of at least a couple of them. What many people may not realize, however, is that these icons reside within only one of the 5 boroughs (or in the harbor), that being Manhattan.
However, there are many New Yorkers from the 4 outer-boroughs that will be quick to inform a tourist that the real NYC exists outside the glitz and glam of Manhattan Island. And after the pleasure of taking care of Lenna in Brooklyn for 9 days, we were made believers of that sentiment.
As one of the previously-mentioned 4 outer-boroughs, along with Staten Island, Queens and The Bronx, Brooklyn holds its identity as a hard-working and multi-cultural society, thanks to its rich history of industry and immigration. Walking along its streets, it's easy to run into communities from all across the globe, such as Jewish, Puerto Rican and Middle Eastern neighborhoods, which were a stone's throw away from Lenna's lair.
Venturing the countless blocks can be extremely interesting and rewarding, and a handy way that can be achieved is through one of the many Citi Bike stations that line the street. But, one can certainly utilize the dependable subway and bus systems that delve into most of the unique areas, as well.
After the short commute, some of our favorite locales were Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Bushwick. See, we fancy ourselves as craft-brewery connoisseurs and these three neighborhoods certainly don't lack in the creation of new and exciting beer-tastes. Kings County Brewers Collective & Greenpoint Beer & Ale Co., in particular, offer a relaxing indoor-outdoor environment with top-notch suds, along with friendly & knowledgeable staff (and no, we are not sponsored by either of the two). A casual stroll to the next brewery will greet you with colorful murals, expressive people and up-and-coming cafes and shops, which all help to deem Brooklyn as one and the most trendy and hipster-friendly regions in America.
But it's not all super-tight jeans and music-snobbery in Brooklyn. Families can enjoy a fun-filled day at the beach, the nationally-renowned aquarium, or braving the historic Cyclone wooden rollercoaster, all on Coney Island. And for the money-conscious clan, it's hard to patrol many avenues without coming across one of the myriad parks, which act as an oasis amidst the hustle and bustle. A couple of the more well-established greeneries are Prospect Park, Fort Greene Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park, where you can find majestic views of Lower & Midtown Manhattan, with the Statue of Liberty glistening to your left. And just when you thought it couldn't get any better, there are designated piers that boast a vast array of recreational activities, such as basketball, skating, soccer and table tennis.
ProTip: The historic Brooklyn Bridge is definitely a sight to behold with its stone facade and 19th-century architecture. Here, you'll find stoic views of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Lady Liberty, and its worth a trek across. However, if you want to beat the throngs of tourists on foot with cyclists swerving in and out, we HIGHLY RECOMMEND trying its sister overpass, the Manhattan Bridge, to get you across the East River. It offers most of the same scenic photo ops with a fraction of the foot traffic (and the cyclists have their own lane on the other side of the bridge).
Finally, there's Downtown Brooklyn. Although dwarfed by its neighboring Manhattan, Brooklyn's city-center acts as any other large city's downtown would. It comes complete with a large collection of high-rise buildings, lively bar- and restaurant-filled streets, and 2 professional sports teams, in the way of the Brooklyn Nets & the New York Islanders. An assortment of culture and unique opportunities are around every corner in this high-paced downtown of a borough within the greater City.
Having a sit in Lower Manhattan before embarking on our European adventures was thrilling and wonderful in itself, for obvious reasons. However, being able to also bookend our trip across the pond in the Big Apple, but in Brooklyn this time, allowed for us to get a different feel for another side of "The Greatest City In The World." Having said that, its use as a launch and return site couldn't have been more ideal, as it both helped prepare us for some of the cultures and ideals we were to come across in Europe, as well as provided a gradual re-integration into North American customs upon our arrival back.
Our stay in Brooklyn allowed for us to experience an area of New York City that's often overlooked by tourists. We can't wait to get back and explore more of it, as well as the other 3 outer-buroughs, and hopefully Lenna will be available for another play-date!
Nestled just south of the Arctic Circle, Iceland stretches 40,000 square miles, but with a population less than that of downtown Cleveland, making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe. Where it lacks in population though, it certainly makes up for with its awe-inspiring natural beauty. From glaciers and fjords to black-sand beaches and majestic waterfalls, it’s hard to look in any direction and keep your camera out of your hands.
Although it might seem daunting to visit this Nordic island in winter, many would argue this would be the optimal time. The northern lights, or aurora borealis, has been gazed upon since the Vikings established colonies in the 9th century and that sentiment of wonder has been carried on today by Icelanders and tourists alike (unfortunately, we weren’t part of those tourists, as we came a few weeks later than the ideal viewing time). And a great spot to view the lights, while beating the chill of winter, is immersed in a hot spring-fed lagoon, which there are plenty for your choosing.
Conversely, late April through September offers its own advantages in the forms of 15-22 hours of sunlight per day and the opportunity to traverse more areas of the island that otherwise would be buried in snow and ice. Additionally, for you bird-watchers out there, it’s during this time that the Atlantic Puffin nests along the rugged cliffs throughout the island.
Through our experience and suggestions from friends and locals, we discovered a few helpful tips for those of you that might be interested in visiting this magical island.
With a trip of a week or less, don’t be a hero; try and focus on more of the local sights:
Due to its deceivingly-large size, and especially with only having 6 days to work with, we found that it would be too rushed to try and circumnavigate the whole island. By looking at the map and planning out our days, we decided to cut our losses on the far-off places and focused more on local areas that we could explore in a day (from Reykjavik across to the other side of the island is just under 9 hours one-way).
A day trip took us to Glymur Waterfall, where we went on a 3-hour hike without a tour bus in sight. This waterfall is the tallest on the island and the way in which it’s situated makes it difficult to photograph. This is only the top portion, which we couldn’t see until we got within 15-minutes of the summit
For those who are cost-conscious, we suggest opting for a rental car and an Airbnb in Reykjavik:
There are certainly advantages to seeing the island via tour bus and we were actually close to going that route. However, after price-comparisons with car rentals we found that it was a little cheaper going with our own set of wheels (this included full protection, which we advise you get, due to prevalent gravel roads) for a few days than 3 bus tours. Adding to this, the freedom to explore key sites on our own time as well as off-the-beaten-path-type places gave us all the more reason to get our own buggy.
Regarding the second half of this tip...because of the vast majority of the population being located in Reykjavik, Airbnb’s are much more common there than in the ancillary cities along the perimeter. Thus we found prices to be much more affordable than not, especially for the private-dwelling variety, which is extremely scarce (and expensive!) when you get out of Reykjavik.
Don’t eat or drink:
Well, OK, you can do these things if you are either really wealthy or heed our advice. Being a remote island-nation, Iceland is very expensive and when it comes to restaurants and bars, this is no different. From just perusing the local establishments, we found your average beer to be about $13, soup $20 and a burger $25. Most places however, have happy hour for drinks that have varying timeframes which brings a pint down to $6-8. But, unfortunately for food, we didn’t see any such deals. We stocked up at the “cheap” grocery store, Bonus, which had some reasonable prices within. That being said, make sure your lodging accommodation comes complete with a kitchen, as it came in really handy for us to prepare meals.
Don’t fret about exchanging your cash:
Virtually EVERY business in Iceland accepts credit card. So save your frustration, poor exchange rates and ATM fees, because you’ll be able to swipe everywhere.
Leave your translation book at home:
Normally a priority of ours when we travel, we try to speak the basics of the country’s language as much as possible. However, Icelanders might be better at English than Americans. In addition to Icelandic, most everything is written in English and locals are quick to offer assistance in English first. Although reveling in these comforts might not be the most cultured thing to do, we did find Icelandic to be both highly-complex yet similar in certain instances.
By incorporating our newly-found tips, we were able to execute our main objective: explore the vast beauty that Iceland exudes. And even with time constraints limiting us to a fraction of what the country has to offer, what we did see was truly extraordinary.
All within a two-hour drive of Reykjavik, we discovered some fantastic sights along the Golden Circle (Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir & Kerid Crater), Glymur - the tallest waterfall in Iceland, at 198 meters, the Secret Lagoon, and Dyrhólaey.
Last, but not least, Reykjavik itself is a quaint, modern city set amidst the picturesque landscape. If you can get by the exorbitant prices, this capital city boasts great museums, a lively art-culture and very friendly locals.
So if you’ve always dreamt of going to Iceland or you discover one of your possible flights to Europe stops-over in Iceland for any length of time, DO IT. It’s a place unlike any other and most certainly worth your while. We will definitely be back to continue our adventure where we left off.
Preface: This is merely an account of our own observations as we’ve traveled the island. We fully appreciate the sensitive nature of the civic tensions, especially the last half-century. We regret to offend anyone who’s been affected by the conflict.
Before voyaging to Ireland, we had a basic understanding of the political landscape and cultural divide that the Island of Ireland has endured. We didn’t, however, grasp the intricacies of a past that has been woven by both internal and external forces for many a century.
We came over by very fortunate happenstance and have thoroughly enjoyed both the southern and northern parts of the island. That is to say, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, respectfully. You see, these are two completely different countries, and have been since 1921. At that time, after years of uprisings against the British, the two sides compromised to allow Ireland to receive its own republic in the south and Britain to retain control of 6 counties in the north, with Belfast as the new capitol.
All’s well that ends well, yeah?
The British have influenced the Emerald Isle for over 8 centuries, especially the last 4, when the Crown began heavy colonization. They made it a point to try and “civilize” the Irish through attempts at converting them to Protestantism, a gradual nixing of their language and culture, and an upheaval from their lands.
As you might guess, this led to great resentment of Britain and with that came many revolts. Despite these clashes, however, the British established a successful colony on the island, the north in particular, by the mid-17th century. Many Irishmen would begin to follow the Anglo religion and speak English in order to diminish discrimination and give their families a hope of a different life.
Different factions across the island could only take so much, though, and it all came to a head when the 1916 Rising sparked a movement for sovereignty.
This push, however, wasn’t shared by all. The Protestants, or Unionists, in the north largely wanted to stay loyal to the Crown. This, in part, led to the formation of Northern Ireland during the negotiation 5 years later.
Since that time, much of the same angst has been ongoing, but now with the island having 2 different political entities instead of 1. The Troubles, in some cases, pit brother versus brother in bloody conflict in much of Northern Ireland up until 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement was reached. The Nationalists, which tended to be comprised of a Catholic-majority, wanted to unify the island and rid it of British occupation. This contrasted with the Unionists, which were of a Protestant-majority and wanted to stay loyal to the Queen.
Additionally, the British army had also made its presence felt, which didn’t shy away from flexing its muscles; so much so that former British Prime Minister David Cameron made a direct apology to those affected by the armed forces in Northern Ireland, particularly during the infamous Bloody Sunday.
In all, the decades-long exchange left over 3,600 dead and thousands wounded, both physically and psychologically. This was a time of extreme tension and terror, with explosives liable to detonate at any time and anywhere.
During our time in Northern Ireland, especially, we were met with the sober reality of The Troubles in places like Derry and Belfast. Through the myriad signs, murals and walking tours on the streets of Rossville and Falls, we had a secondhand glimpse of what life was like during that time.
Despite the peace treaty 20 years previous, though, many locals we had the chance to talk with confirmed that they feared tensions could be escalated again in some areas. In fact, along Falls Road, the gates separating the two traditionally-opposing communities are still locked each night.
Moreover, during the July 12th Fortnight, pro-Unionists take to the streets in a parade of song and dance, sporting the Union Jack flag and complementary tunes. This is sometimes even done with no regard to the neighborhood en route, Catholic-majority or otherwise.
Additionally, it is over this fortnight that large groups of British loyalists gather sizable quantities of lumber pallets, tyres, and just about anything else they want to dispose of, and create very symmetrical stacks to set ablaze. Unfortunately though, some of the items are Ireland Republic flags and symbols, as well as effigies of Catholic figures, such as the Pope.
Now this, of course, does not represent the majority of the Northern Irish population, no matter where their allegiances may lie. Those that participate in these events and any display of violence are most certainly a small, fanatical minority of its citizens. And it also must be said that not all Catholics conform to the Nationalist Movement, just like not all Protestants take the side of the Unionists; that has just been the usual correspondence over the years.
Again, despite the reminders of the turmoil, this has not deterred us from having a fantastic time in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Just after crossing the Carrick-a-rede bridge in Northern Ireland, which is a 100-meter-long rope bridge connecting the island to the mainland. Now a tourist attraction, it used to be the only way the local fishermen could bring back the salmon. They held their nets full of fish with one hand and crossed the bridge with the other
The natural beauty is hard to parallel in any other region of the globe. The vast, rolling green hills giving way to massively-sculpted cliffs is truly a sight to behold.
The history is ready to pounce at you around every corner, from majestic castles to haunted pubs dating back to the Crusades.
But really, what makes the Emerald Isle such an honor to behold is its people.
Yes, the very people who’ve endured such a tough, complex existence for many hundreds of years.
The very people that saw countless days of bloodshed and injustice.
The very people that are living in a still-tense environment in parts of Northern Ireland.
These were some of the kindest, most welcoming people (and pets!) that we’ve come across on our travels. It’s nothing to them to nod and smile and be ready with enthusiasm if you ask for assistance.
And yes, they are even open to conversing about their island’s troubled past...often with ideas on a solution, and an optimistic vision of peace.
Have circumstances ever had it to where you went somewhere or did something spontaneously, that you otherwise didn’t plan beforehand? Sometimes things happen out of the blue that ultimately push you in a direction that was previously unforeseen to you. Typically those occurrences tend to be memorable, be it for good or bad.
What if we told you that you could plan and create the good ones?
While many of these surprise instances occur in general life, many happen within the realm of travel that ultimately you cannot foresee, like meeting new friends and being invited to their house for local traditional cuisine (which just isn’t the same in a restaurant). Experiences like these are great and are truly what’s wonderful about traveling.
But especially when considering getting from one place to another, the power of circumstance is really in your hands. If time and schedule permit it, areas in between your planned destinations can add an enriching, unexpected adventure to your trip.
While searching for bargains, don’t overlook the areas in between your departing city and destination. Literally look at the map and see what’s in the middle and you may end up getting a bonus jaunt that you never would have even thought of.
We’ve been fortunate enough to take advantage of this method a few times on this trip, but the one most rewarding is our current, which happened out of brainstorming how we were eventually getting back home in the Spring.
We originally had it in our minds that we were going to leave from Malta and venture to either Paris or London for a short sit before flying back to the East Coast. This was especially the case as these cities were the cheapest to depart from; so we thought...
Not only was the flight from Malta to Dublin substantially cheaper than to London or Paris, it was also more cost-efficient for flying back home. And to put the cherry on top, two fantastic house-sits enabled us to turn a few days in Dublin into a month-long adventure around the island.
As you can imagine, this within itself has brought amazing experiences that we otherwise would have missed out on, including Melissa being able to reconnect with relatives in Galway after 13 years, and you just can’t put a price on that.
So now, unfortunately, we are at the end of this originally-unexpected trip across the Island of Ireland and it’s time to book the tickets to leave from here to home.
After looking at flights from Dublin & Belfast back to America, we again conversed and decided to break out the map, as we had a slight wonder about what the feasibility of a stop-over in Reykjavik might be.
Lo and behold, a flight from Belfast to Reykjavik ($44!!) and then Reykjavik back to JFK combined to be cheaper than Belfast straight to JFK. Unfortunately, with only a handful of days left in Schengen Territory (more on that later), we have yet to find a short pet-sit, but nevertheless are thrilled about this very unique opportunity.
So if the time permits, don’t be afraid to peruse the map and explore some options between points A & B; you never know what you might find.
To all of our friends and family: Yes, we are (gradually) making our way back home. But for now, we are enjoying these final, unexpected opportunities! :)
Have you ever wanted to go to Barcelona? Who wouldn’t, right?
With it’s unique Catalan culture and language, the Mediterranean Sea, and ancient history, this is an international destination for any traveler.
What about Dublin? I mean, another astounding YES, right?
Most of us have enjoyed a pint of Guinness and have been told by pretentious friends that, “It’s so much better-tasting when you drink it in Dublin.”
This modern metropolis ties centuries-old tradition together perfectly to form a major global hub of the arts, technology and history.
“How on Earth could this happen?” you might ask.
Well, it just so happened in these two spots, that the towns themselves and the immediate surrounding areas turned out to be hidden gems that we had no idea about prior to arriving. These sits especially, have really revealed to us the notion that living like a local offers so much more than wearing the tourist hat.
These attractions are what we envisioned when we signed up for pet-sits in the greater metros of these iconic cities. We were delighted that these sits were three- and two-week-long stays, as we had plans to regularly explore every nook and cranny with our pets. And despite not being right in the city center, both locations offered easy and quick train rides downtown.
So after our combined five weeks in the two cities, we ended up visiting a grand total of 1-TIME.
It feels as though, now, that if we had focused on Barcelona & Dublin exclusively, we would have missed out on broadening activities, like experiencing an annual fire festival (we have the burn marks on our clothes to prove it) in Sant Pere de Ribes with newly-found friends, or immersing ourselves in live Irish folk music while celebrating Good Friday with a pint for the first time (www.pioneeringpetpals.com/blog/aoine-an-cheasta-to-you) in a quaint coastal town.
The City of Tarragona was a short train ride away and offered fantastic glimpses into ancient Roman life in the forms of a greatly preserved amphitheater, city walls and an impressive acqueduct, which citizens relied upon for their water consumption, bathing and cleaning. This city was truly a sight to behold and we were even able to take Harry on the train with us!
Moreover, a really introspective experience in County Meath came in the form of Newgrange, an ancient Neolithic burial and ceremonial site. To the untrained eye, this area might just look like a big hill or mound, but once you get up close, you can see the near-impossible feat our ancestors of 5,000 years ago took to create such an awe-inspiring marvel.
Three generations of work in the making, these early Irishmen used their ingenuity and brute strength to move several-ton boulders from miles away and assemble them into an architecturally-sound passageway and chamber.
Here, they carved beautiful designs in the stone to honor the remains of their loved ones who were set to rest amidst the chamber. It was here where their spirits would dwell until the winter solstice, when the dawning sun would rise and perfectly slip through the only window of the structure and run down the passageway to the chamber, where the sun god would extend his hand to the waiting souls and take them up to Heaven (our tour guide demonstrated this by turning all of the lights out inside and used his flashlight to mimic the sun, which that alone gave us chills).
But really, the accessibility to trails and parks enabled us to take our dogs-at-the-time, for long adventures that we all really enjoyed. From seaside cliffs, national parks and a religious Mecca in Montserrat, to sheep-populated fields and seals bobbing in the bay in an old Viking town, these are memories that we will certainly hold dear, and we like to think that Harry, Eli & Kim will, too.
Don’t get us wrong, we ended up visiting both Barcelona & Dublin and absolutely loved them. Everything we mentioned previously about both holds true and then some, and will certainly make it a point to return.
However, being lucky enough to be situated in such ideal locations for a good length of time enabled us to really explore and find out about these magical areas of Spain & Ireland, that sadly (or maybe not so sadly) many travelers will not get the opportunity to visit.
And to do a lot of these things with our furry friends really makes it that much more special.
Now it’s just down to Christmas Day.
This is now the last time of year that an Irishman is locked out of his pub. With the new ruling, which occurred in January of this year, the Republic of Ireland has now opened its pub doors on Good Friday. After a 90-year ban, the sale of alcohol has now officially been permitted with all-party support (The Guardian).
Not wanting to miss a moment of the Goodness, pubs are enthusiastically opening their doors at 7 AM. Citing changing demographics, a reduction in traditional religious practices, and benefits from tourism, alcohol retailers and politicians alike have sided together to make this a reality. Moreover, a lot of the public over the years has held onto the idea that Jesus’ crucifiction was done in an act of love and should be celebrated, which is in contrast to how some might see it as being a solemn and sad event.
This is not to say, however, that the whole country is on board with the lifting of the ban, as even a couple of cities, Newmarket & Derumconrath, have held fast in keeping “Good Dryday” (The Irish Times).
With this action, Ireland meets the large majority of “Christian” countries that have enabled their citizens to purchase and consume alcohol on Good Friday. For some perspective, one is even able to drink a glass of wine with his meal in the Vatican on this day.
Ultimately, whether you’re a believer or not, everyone loves to wake up to round chocolates in the form of Easter eggs. And now in Ireland, for those willing, one can even complement those with a whiskey that was purchased on the Friday before.
Now, raise a glass to the Risen!
Heck, even Jesus drank wine.
Happy Easter! We will be testing out and celebrating this new found liberty in the Republic amongst other Irish-folk and our furry pals, Kim & Eli.
In the midst of one of our light-heated banter sessions, my geography teacher/track coach, Mr. Givogue, challenges me:
“Name a place, any place, and I’ll locate it on the map.” I think for a few seconds, as the bragging rights that were dangling in front of me came into focus. Finally, I think of the most random, seldom-known country I can manage and with a triumphant smile I echo, “Malta.” Instantly, I can see the wash of unease over Mr. Givogue’s face, and my confidence was confirmed (which doesn't typically happen, as he is well-versed in most everything). Conveniently averting his attention away from me, however, he addresses the entire class with instructions for homework before the bell rings. But after tending to his newfound interest, he turns back to me with an ominous stare that read, “I’ll see you at track practice...”
In the ensuing years, Malta sat in the furthest reaches of my mind, back where I had plucked it to emerge for the sole purpose of winning a competition those years before. Piled in-depth in front of it, was anything from college applications to where the party was for the approaching Saturday night.
It wasn’t until years later, when my girlfriend and I stumbled upon a cat-sitting opportunity in the tiny Island of Gozo, where the Country of Malta raced back up to the forefront of my mind.
We were already towards the tail-end of a European trip consisting of pet sits via TrustedHousesitters.com (which has been a life-saver financially, and has allowed us to look after some wonderful cats and dogs), when it happened upon Melissa’s screen one morning that Cocoa the Cat needed companions for two weeks. After some discussion and logistics planning, we thought that this opportunity might not arise again for some time, and especially only being in Italy at the time, we decided to take the plunge.
Gozo, the second largest island in the archipelago country of Malta, has been above and beyond our highest expectations upon taking the sit. From its hilly vistas to its friendly citizens, there’s just so much to offer, and sadly we simply don’t have requisite time to explore it all.
As part of a former land bridge from Sicily to North Africa some 12,000 years ago, the glaciers from the last ice age eventually retreated, and in their wake left behind the tallest portions of the bridge: these magical islands.
The largest and main island is stoic and picturesque in its own right, housing the modern capitol of Valletta, the ancient capitol of Mdina, and the majority of the nation’s 400,000 population.
However, our time on the big island has been minimized thanks to the pleasure of looking after the ever-entertaining Cocoa. It has really been a treat getting to know and spending time with her. But having said that, it’s very tough to cram all the highlights of Gozo itself into two weeks, even if we could put Cocoa on a leash (which, frankly, she wouldn't take too kindly to).
We are big into history, so when we found out that the world’s oldest temples, Ggantija, were located on the island, that pretty much gave it an A+ as it is. Going back well before cellphones were invented, the first known Neolithic peoples to inhabit the island made their mark upon the land, in the form of ritualistic temples and burial grounds that are still a site to behold, some 6,000 years later.
Moreover, no visit would be complete without venturing to the Citadel. Conveniently located a 15 minute walk from our house, it operated as the center of commerce and was the main town on the island since the Bronze Age. Perched on a tall hill in the middle of the island, the storied town has a thick surrounding wall and offers 360-degree views of the island. The Neolithic peoples, the Romans, the Moors, the Italian Knights, and the British have all utilized this heavily fortified commune as a center of politics, entertainment, military force, religious activity, and everyday life for officials and regular citizens over millennia. To this day, all roads still lead to the Citadel.
But it’s not all stuffy relics Gozo has to offer. It’s the natural beauty of the rolling, green hills, the Mediterranean violently battling steep cliff faces, and glistening salt pans, some carved out of the limestone by Romans themselves, that has us in awe. There are countless walking paths, swimming holes, fishing towns, numerous old churches, and a great beach, Rambla, that offer glimpses into this pristine speck of land in the middle of the sea. World-renowned directors and producers also agree, as over 50 major motion pictures have been filmed on the islands, such as Gladiator, Popeye, Troy, By the Sea, and everyone's favorite series, Game of Thrones.
One should not be concerned about going hungry when visiting Gozo, either. The island and country is known for its breads and cheeses. There are numerous bakeries in every little town, including the mouth-watering Ta’saminu confectionery down the street from our house. And if you’re squeamish about the thought of sampling Thumper (rabbit happens to be the national dish, and is apparently really tasty if one was so bold), the seafood is top-notch.
And yes, despite being dumb Americans, the locals are as welcoming as we’ve seen, eager to help and share their island paradise. And just when it couldn’t get any better (or worse), English, along with Maltese, is an official language, a stalwart of the country’s British colonial past.
So while only hitting the tip of the iceberg with this short piece, we encourage you to go and discover for yourself what really makes this a hidden jewel of the Mediterranean. It’s definitely going to be a priority of ours to get back, and hopefully the return trip involves a reunion with our new friend, Cocoa.