Archive for June, 2014

SOTM World Tour – Malta Part II

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

10171692_10154119375280241_8221091916035131426_nSo the last stop on the SOTM World Tour saw me pop back to Malta, quite fittingly. And as always, it was great to be back home.

I was there through an invitation to join the Blog Island project, run by the blogger group iambassador and the Malta Tourism Authority. Personally I’ve long thought Malta would be ripe for an organised blogger campaign so was delighted to learn of this one being put together.

Kate and I stayed in the excellent Palazzo Prince D’Orange in Valletta, a beautiful and enormous building restored to a very nice standard. It captures much of the charm that traditional Maltese houses have, while being a fancy place to stay at the same time. Here’s the flag outside the building.

10314520_10154119403100241_2529624660625187409_nThe top image shows part of the view that you get from the roof of the palazzo, and this meant that we got a grandstand view for the firework show put on to mark the 10th anniversary of Malta entering the European Union.

I used my MeFoto tripod for this (I have a sponsored Backpacker model – it’s light and robust – and am genuinely very happy with it) and have never photographed fireworks before. I got some decent results but was using a 2.5 second shutter speed, but think I would have done better with 2 seconds. Still, here’s a couple of examples.

10401980_10154212613930241_3317899970187105190_nAs you can see, the Maltese do fireworks very well, often winning awards for their pyrotechnics. I must confess that during some local festas, which happen every year, the health and safety standards are sometimes lacking, but the ones shown here were fired safely from barges floating in Valletta’s Grand Harbour.

10414900_10154212615700241_5146955438409375623_nThe Maltese are very keen on their cars and often soup up older models. This one had quite eye-catching patterns.

10259862_10154129477745241_6333107387073139194_nStaying in Valletta gave us plenty of opportunity to wander its charming back streets, which are hugely photogenic. This city, a World Heritage Centre, is a capital like no other.

1549315_10154129477245241_5972706450121067518_nSpeaking of Valletta’s streets, I chose one of them as the location for my very own SOTM. I have never done one, and as SOTM will probably end in the autumn, I needed to have my image ready to use because it’s going to be the last ever new one that I post.

Thereafter, all the images, roughly all seven years’ worth, will then rotate forever, turning over every day like they currently do, just in a giant circle instead of having a new photo and story each day.

So here’s a sneak peek at mine. I had always intended upon another Maltese location for my SOTM, but the night before the picture was to be taken, I changed my mind. I chose a certain place in Valletta instead – Upper Barrakka Gardens – but when Kate and I went there it was clear that wouldn’t work either.

St Ursula’s Street  is parallel to the palazzo, and I love Valletta’s streets, so it suddenly became clear that it should be my place.

10273405_633903930012093_4464690629398676696_oAnd here I am in my happy place – a cracking little cafe in Valletta called Gambrinus. It serves super coffee and pastizzi, which are a ricotta-filled baked Maltese savoury delicacy that you simply must try if ever you go (but make sure they’re oval, like the ones you see here, as any round/triangular ones are poor imitations).

10339577_10154119374440241_3919495774707907156_nAnd here’s a great view of Valletta, from across the water in Sliema’s Tigne Point.

10258341_10154119830675241_9145648304846680904_nKate and I were on our way to the Chop House, a superb steak house which I thoroughly recommend. We were guests of the owner and the food was really delicious, including Scottona beef which I’d never heard of before but was lovely. It comes from young virgin cows and is a meat eater’s treat.

The Chop House in a glass-fronted building so you keep that same view of Valletta as you eat. Go there one evening and watch the dying light change quite dramatically on those famous, aged stones.

Speaking of food, as part of Blog Island we visited the Tal-Petut restaurant in one of the Three Cities, Birgu. When we arrived it turned out, in typical Malta-is-so-tiny-you-know-everyone fashion, that I knew the owner, Donald.

This excellent chap is hugely charismatic, idiosyncratic and unforgettable. I met him once 14 years ago and he could still remember that I’m originally from Gzira in Malta.

10271513_10154119377155241_799767897720853726_nWhen I met him Donald was head of Reuters financial services on the island, but these days he’s cooking up a storm in a building whose youngest stones are about 400 years old.

We all helped out in the kitchen, just a little bit of gentle preparation as Donald has most things stewing or marinading or whatever, and when we put it all together it looked like this. Near the middle you’ll see a basket of Maltese bread which I cut, despite Donald telling me: “Mario, you’re murdering that bread.”

10365855_10154212598715241_2939016647507528595_nHere’s a shot of Sliema as seen from St Julian’s, just because such a lovely day deserves to be photographed.

10276991_10154119374640241_6997257470705082864_nDuring our stay it was the feast of St Publius, the saint for Floriana, a small area literally right outside of Valletta with a population of just 2,300.

Festi are always worth visiting, and this one was very charming, with St Publius’ statue begin carried slowly through this tiny town’s narrow streets.

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10262003_10154212625000241_1941420696708924452_nThe lighting wasn’t great for capturing street shots, and I forgot my flash – although I don’t think I wanted to be running around throwing a flash in people’s faces. Most of those in attendance were local or certainly Maltese, and I wanted to let the magic of their festa unravel without any brash intrusion.

So I pushed up the ISO to quite dizzy levels – this one was taken at 5000 – but it still worked well enough for shots to go on a blog post.

10257233_10154212625750241_7064935386085505485_nI like the light on this one. I’m not sure this lady was in a bad mood, but the light thrown up from the bulbs make her look rather stern.

10407240_10154212624630241_489990735771083525_nThere’s always a band at a festa and while the poor light made capturing them difficult, there were a couple of good shots to be had. I managed to get this guy while he was full of puff.

10338314_10154212626030241_6198469507898538752_nI spotted this little chap with presumably his dad. He was very cute and looked dapper in his mini-suit.

10383091_10154212623230241_8095151132649527162_nI was tickled by this angle which made St Publius looks like he was checking out the local bar’s latest offer…

In Malta it’s very common to have bars, shops, businesses, cars and houses named after things you’ll find in other parts of the world. You can be sure the owner of that bar has either been to Oklahoma, has possibly lived there, or just really likes the musical.

10375106_10154212627915241_6254884868321219607_nWhile at the festa Kate and I got talking to this sweet couple, whose daughter was playing in the band. They weren’t from Floriana but said they travel around to watch their daughter play, presumably in small towns that don’t have enough of a population to have their own band.

I don’t know what their names are, but the dog was called George. He had a party trick where he licked the lady’s lips full on. It was endearing and horrifying at the same time.

10262082_10154212628345241_7315609396467083452_nAt one point we hired a car, a bright yellow Peugeot with a missing T that Kate christened as “The Buttercup”. It was certainly easy to spot in car parks, at least. We took it to Gozo one day, the second smallest island in the Maltese archipelago, and had a good old tootle around.

This shot shows Malta in the distance with the tiny Comino, which I was told now has three permanent residents, in the middle.

10277238_10154212630595241_585393757806561575_nThere are some well-known salt pans on Gozo, which you can only enter if you’re harvesting salt, despite them being right next to a coast road open to the public.

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10173715_10154212633785241_3948623281138560903_nOne of Gozo’s best beaches is the lovely Ramla Bay, blessed with reddish sand. Having dug our tootsies in it, we then drove up to a lofty viewpoint to take a look around from there. The resulting vista doesn’t disappoint.

10390299_10154212632775241_6213159041685874041_n Incidentally, to whomever drew out a large penis in rocks on Ramla Bay – I salute you.

10369728_10154212633315241_3678383624214016940_nWe also had a tip off from a Gozitan, the charming TV celebrity chef and cookbook author George Borg who cooked us a tasty local meal at the palazzo one night.

He told us how there was another Azure Window-style natural site to be seen in Gozo, at Wied il-Mielah. We went to check it out and it was a quite stunning view.

It was quite difficult to photograph because of the proximity of the surrounding coastline, but by twisting and pressing myself into the adjacent rock face, I managed to capture this.

10177293_10154212634920241_1143008338798032797_nFinally, when driving through a sleepy little village in Gozo, I spotted this sign and liked it so much I stopped The Buttercup to go back and photograph it.

Must be a rather aged sign as that format of phone numbers don’t exist any more, so I wonder if the lion’s still alive. I didn’t want to find out, though.

10313737_10154144462810241_57508472525108271_nAnd that, ladies and gentlemen, was the end of the SOTM World Tour.

Thank you so much for reading my posts. I hope you enjoyed hearing of my adventures and looking at my photography as much as I have enjoyed sharing it with you all.

Going around the world was a lifelong ambition for me, from the time when, as a boy growing up in Malta, I used to pin up maps on my bedroom walls and wonder what those places were really like. And almost right from the start of SOTM’s conception back in September 2006, I wanted to take it around the world at some point.

Now I’ve done both.

Much love to you all – and remember. If you have an ambition, just like I did, make it happen. It’ll be all right.  You’ll do it, and will be better for it.

What are you waiting for?

This post was brought to you by the Blog Island Malta campaign, created and managed by iambassador in partnership with the Malta Tourism Authority and the support of Air Malta

SOTMario maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site.

SOTM World Tour – Germany

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

10277739_10154060419590241_7878184959117140364_nOnce upon a time I was stood on a platform on the London Underground, looking at a poster advertising Germany as a holiday destination.

“Hmm,” I thought. “Not really bothered about going there. Rest of Europe is far more interesting.”

Years later, having eventually visited Germany several times, I’m now a firm fan of the place and list it as one of my favourite countries. It’s a crisp-looking country, has bombastic but impressive architecture, a suitably swish transport system (although the trains are frequently a bit late) and the friendly people widely speak English.

So I was very pleased to be invited back there to speak at the Social Travel Summit in Leipzig in April. This was a conference for top travel bloggers and I was asked to speak about how bloggers can introduce a bit of the same robustness that journalists employ in their work. It was a great event and I enjoyed it very much.

While in town, I came across Cafe Cantona, which excited me greatly as ex-footballer Eric Cantona is my all-time hero of all time. It was started by a few football fans in the city as a venue to watch televised football matches and then grew into a full bar.

Well worth a visit, even if you’re not into football, and aside from this poster it looks like a cute bar with tasty food.

10258858_10154060507820241_2344094764292259520_nJust before I left Leipzig I spotted this street scene, which responded wonderfully to the receding light.

1398_10154060666065241_2399875087192641495_nAfter Leipzig I went on a short trip to the remarkable Völklingen Hütte Ironworks in Saarbrücken, right next to the French border. It was a post-conference trip and I went with Matt, an American chap better known as the Expert Vagabond and Simon, who’s an Italian blogger who writes at Wild About Travel.

10172778_10154067818045241_5491935785216144979_n This former industrial behemoth closed in the mid-1980s after nearly a century of melting down iron ore and is now a gently rusting monument to hard, searingly hot but essential work. It’s also a Unesco World Heritage Site.

10257113_10154080453110241_7009583069189400754_n

10245281_10154080458285241_3187196577066848813_nAll its many pipes and tubes make it look like a giant, gutted monster with its entrails spilled out.

10013756_10154080452395241_7707971156805254342_n

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10295701_10154080471765241_7007538660572448863_nHere I am with the excellent Simon and Matt. We called ourselves #TeamIron.

10155333_10154067192740241_7477261486545691994_nAfter that I moved on to Hamburg, which was a cracking city to hang out in for a while. One part of the town centre was quite reminiscent of Venice.

1911890_10154084038345241_7369723408690065822_nSpeaking of Venice, Hamburg has more bridges than London, Amsterdam and Venice combined, and more canals than Amsterdam and Venice. They are quite lovely to look at, also.

10264274_10154084201410241_7439549552095854468_n

10177937_10154084005795241_2906061209921530629_nIt’s not all beautiful brick in Hamburg, though. This is an eye-catching glass and steel contraption.

10153827_10154084038530241_445904242664083692_nThis is a model of Hamburg, to be seen in the city’s main square next to the town hall. Is it me, or does it look like the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars?

1979712_10154084048825241_6039500707344710101_nThen it was on to Berlin for my third trip to the German capital, and the occasion when I really began to fall in love with the place. I’d always liked it, but am now firmly under its spell. Here’s a shot of the Reichstag, the German parliament building. If those walls could talk…

10313430_10154096795165241_3595285417464828359_nAnd here’s the Brandenburg Gate.

10150678_10154096792465241_3421786651580850536_nFinally  we came across this chap taking part in some sort of product promotion. Not sure what it was all about, but it might be the only time I’m able to photograph a man inside a giant egg timer.

10310112_10154096793455241_4530964957756648354_n While in Berlin I grabbed a couple of SOTMs. Here’s Sofia with something she was told by nuns. Click on both images to see their page on SOTM.

14062014And here’s Victoria with the story of a random encounter at a street parade.

16062014After my Germany escapades, I headed for the final destination on the SOTM World Tour – back to Malta. More on that next time.

SOTM World Tour – East Coast USA

Sunday, June 8th, 2014

The planning for the SOTM World Tour had always been done with chasing the sun in mind.

Kate and I had therefore enjoyed months of sun in many countries, including a record heat wave in Japan of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. But ever since we entered the US, over on the west coast, we’d been seeing reports of this year’s lingering winter storms hitting the very places we were eventually going to reach.

And so we braced ourselves for an Arctic blast when we headed to Washington D.C. We weren’t disappointed.

We were staying with my excellent chums, the gorgeous Chelsey and dashing John, who are soon to tie the knot themselves. I was delighted to learn that they had a dog, a rather large hound called Tallulah.

You can see John and me shivering in this photo along with The Goat, as I affectionately named Tallulah. This is on account of how she likes to eat most things, including laptops.

Incidentally we got to DC via a very comfortable Amtrak train ride. I rather liked the shot I grabbed of our chop-choo with my iPhone as it pulled into the station.

And when we were in DC, I was reminded of how awesome its subway train stations are. Unless you’re Zoe Barnes (for those who’ve seen House of Cards).

Seeing as the weather was so freezing, we decided to hit up some of the remarkable museums that DC has to offer. In the National Museum of American History you can see Miss Piggy herself. Kermit is also on the premises but he wasn’t on display during our visit, sadly.

Also on show were Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street. Confusing everyone with the nature of their friendship since 1969.

A personal favourite of mine – the Cookie Monster. He too dated from 1969 and looked a bit worse for wear. All those cookies play havoc with your fur, clearly.

Is there anyone who doesn’t like the Swedish chef? I met two charming Swedish sisters in Koh Chang earlier on this trip, and asked if they knew the Swedish chef personally. They didn’t find it as funny as I thought they would.

Now then, this simply blew me away. This is the original Wright Brothers flying machine, which made the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight in 1903.

The canopy was replaced in 1985, but otherwise this is the actual aircraft that changed the world, forever. It was an overwhelming sight.

This is another jaw-dropping exhibit at the museum – a section of the diner counter from Woolworth in Greensboro, North Carolina where black diners sat at a whites-only section.

This, and many other protests like it, led to the store dropping its policy of segregation. Amazing and terrifying to think America had this policy within living memory, when almost all of the rest of the world had long since dropped apartheid-style policies in their governments. As for their societies, that’s another matter.

But reminders like the Greensboro counter makes Obama’s election as president even more welcome.

Speaking of Barack, we popped round to the White House to find, to my delight, that it was living up to its name on account of all the wintry weather. Last time I was here, in 2009, it was sunny and hot, so this was a great contrast for my photographs.

1965019_10154005278715241_324059401_nHere’s a photo from my previous visit to DC. Don’t ask.

During that last trip I was lucky enough to meet Chelsey (seen on the far right) and take her SOTM. She invited Kate and me to stay with her and her fiancé John (on the far left).

We had a fruitful SOTM meet up in Acre 121, the bar that John runs, and met smashing types like Glinda and Maynard who run the Travelationship website.

1982046_10153977085495241_1369452790_nHere’s a couple of SOTMs that I took at this splendid gathering. As always, click on the SOTM images to see their pages on the main website.

28052014-2

12052014And this is Kate’s childhood friend Alexa, who now does political stuff in the capital.

12042014I also enjoyed a couple of slices at Dangerously Delicious Pies while in town. The guy who served us looked like the bloke off LMFAO, amusingly.

We also popped into Ben’s Chili Bowl, one of DC’s most famous culinary spots.

I enjoyed one of the establishment’s half smokes, a hotdog with a blend of pork and beef. Named after Bill Cosby, who’s quite partial to them, apparently.

There’s a sign up in the joint that says only he and President Obama can eat there for free. I realised at one point that when Obama won his first election, he came here for a meet and greet, and I was sat right where he stood to shake hands with the staff. Also, I was photobombed by some bird who looks familiar.

So after bidding DC a fond farewell, we headed for an overnight stop off in Baltimore, where my excellent friend Elissa, a long-time supporter of SOTM, offered to put us up and gather a few friends for me to photograph.

Turns out her apartment overlooks Greenmount Cemetery, which has a number of notable eternal residents. None more notorious, though, than John Wilkes Booth, the man who shot Abraham Lincoln.

1185283_10153972686245241_456779371_nThis is the Booth family plot. Wilkes’s grave appears to be the headstone closest to the camera. It’s the only one that’s unmarked.

Elissa explained that people leave a one cent coin, known as a penny, on Wilkes’s grave because it has Lincoln’s head on it. So that’s exactly what Kate and I did.

Thanks once again, thanks to Elissa’s efforts, a few people were rounded up for a SOTM meetup that night. I got several smashing shots from smashing people. Here’s a couple of them.

01052014Also during the meet up bar, Club Charles, I bumped into movie director John Waters, who I interviewed in 2010 for the BBC.

I asked if he remembered me from the interview, and he said: “Gosh, I’ve done a million of those.” But he chatted briefly and was still as nice as when I met him the first time.

Early the next morning we took a bus to Philadelphia, somewhere I’ve always wanted to go because I’m a huge fan of Rocky, which is set in this city.

We were staying with Kate’s friends this time, Kelly and Dave, who were superb hosts and much fun. Kelly patiently drove us around to see a few sites from the Rocky movies.

First stop, the area where Rocky jumped benches in front of Independence Hall. The hall itself is hugely interesting inside, for it’s where a few disgruntled types decided to sever the Colonies from Britain over a few misunderstandings. Or something like that…

Not-so-fun fact: it was freezing cold and I was quite stiff, but after posing briefly for this photo, the back of my left leg ached all day. When I get back to London life, I’m hitting the yoga again. Hard.

These are the famous steps that Rocky runs up several times in the series of films. They officially belong to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but I’m glad that they’re widely known as the Rocky Steps.

In fact, several people I met in Philly told me, in all sincerity, how the Italian Stallion is regarded as a god, as almost a real person in the city. He’s much loved and clips from the movies are played at major sporting events for Philadelphia’s teams.

This makes me very happy.

The view from the top of the Rocky Steps.

Kate, Kelly and I ran up the steps. Had to be done. It really did.

Also, this is something that I’ve really always wanted to do – pose with the statue of Rocky, which featured in Rocky III. A real highlight of my life, let me tell you.

This is Pat’s King of Steaks, famous for its cheesesteaks, and also where Rocky stood in the first movie. He was given $500 by his loan shark boss to help with training expenses.

1976987_10154005258470241_1891352800_nA plaque marks the spot where Rocky stood in that scene, demonstrating again how important a figure he is to the people of this city.

And if they’re good enough for Rocky…

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Dave and I were stunned to learn that neither Kelly nor Kate had ever seen Rocky. So that night Dave put the movie on, and it seemed to go down well with the ladies. One day, only five more to go.

Finally, Kelly took us to Elfreth’s Alley. This sounds like a euphemism from an episode of Blackadder, but actually it’s the oldest residential street in America. To my glee, I noted the old school Union Flag hanging up there.

It’s probably for educational purposes, but I secretly hoped someone British had bought the property and hung the flag to irk the locals.

10153682_10154005261420241_1314690556_nIt was a great spot for Kelly’s own SOTM.

02062014That’s it for this time – after Philly, Kate and I travelled to New York and Boston for a low-key period on the trip, staying with Kate’s family. I’ll pick up our travels again when back in Europe, starting with a travel conference in Germany.