A Travellerspoint blog

Around the World 2017: Taipei


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We had great experiences in Tokyo and Seoul on our last two round-the-world trips, so we decided to stop in a major East Asian capital this time as well. The two things that brought us to Taipei were the city's reputation as a food and market mecca and the presence of Mei Ling's beloved elderly grandfather, who she hadn't seen in many years. We allotted a full week to experience the many famous night markets and give Mei Ling plenty of time to reconnect with her family.

The fifteen hour flight from NYC was tough but not excruciating, as the kids slept for a decent portion of it. I only slept about an hour but I was high on the adrenaline of arriving in a new country and major city. Oddly enough, we were staying in a Hello Kitty Airbnb much like the one we'd stayed in in Seoul. I didn't have any particular affinity for Hello Kitty, but it was the best place I found and it seems to be a fairly common theme in East Asia. The hotel sent over a Hello Kitty van to pick us up at the airport and take us back to our room.
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We had chosen the throbbing commercial neighborhood of Ximending in the center of Taipei. The area didn't have its own named night market, but we would never have known it walking around the pedestrian zone on our first night. The entire area seemed to be one giant night market with neon signs and billboards everywhere we looked. And naturally, exotic and delicious food was all around us.
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After gorging ourselves we stumbled on a couple of street acrobats in an open space in the pedestrian zone. This was no ordinary event, as the performers were obviously highly skilled. In fact, we later learned that one of them was the famed Taiwanese acrobat Isaac Hou who has been featured in commercials for Chase bank.
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Our first night turned out to be one of the few moments we experienced in Taipei without rain. For the rest of our week-long stay it rained almost continuously. We didn't have the time to stay inside to wait for the rain to stop, which it almost never did anyway. We bought the older kids raincoats and used plastic covers on the strollers. For ourselves, we had the cheap plastic bag ponchos that we could scrunch up and stuff into our pockets when we were indoors.

On our first full day we snagged breakfast at a series of classic Taiwanese sidewalk dumpling and noodle shops in Ximending. Every time we decided we'd had enough we'd run into another irresistible delicacy a block down the road.
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We took the highly efficient Metro to Dihua Street in the northern neighborhood of Dadaocheng. Dihua Street is believed to be the oldest street in Taipei and is famous for dried foods and Chinese traditional medicine. We spent about an hour walking up and down the street enjoying the sights and smells of the preserves.
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Day or night, it's impossible to walk far in Taipei without stumbling on a market and soon enough we found ourselves inside a major one in Dadaocheng. The kids were fascinated by a lady artfully making thin pancakes on a gas cooktop.
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It was only two hours since we'd had breakfast, but we still found room to consume a selection of delicacies we found at the market's food court. My favorite was the fish skin salad, although the skin was somewhat thicker and less crispy than the first one I'd tasted in Guangzhou two years earlier.
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We returned to the Metro which took us to Mei Ling's grandfather's apartment in the Shilin district, north of the Keelung River. Interestingly, the sidewalks of the apartment complex were full of huge African land snails. Perhaps the incessant rain had driven them out of their usual habitats. large_IMG_0125.jpg

After a couple of hours of reconnecting, we went out for our first real restaurant meal of the trip which was relatively boring compared to the street and market food we'd been eating over the last 24 hours. Once Mei Ling was finally ready to leave her family, it was just a short walk to the Shilin night market. Taipei's night markets are one of the most amazing and unique features of the city. There are at least a dozen scattered around the city and most are open every night. The experience of walking through a night market is overwhelming, with a seemingly endless array of booths serving the favorite local snacks. Since there's so much to describe regarding the night markets we visited, I decided to group them together in a separate post.
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On our second full day we decided to check out a couple of the larger morning markets in the center of the city, Nanmen and Dongmen. When we got out of the Metro we found ourselves just outside of Liberty Square, home of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. This is one of Taipei's main tourist attractions, but not the type of place we usually seek out when we travel. Since we were there anyway and we'd already eaten breakfast in Ximending, we decided to take a look around. Fortunately we didn't have to climb the 89 steps, representing Chiang's age at the time of his death, to the main entrance. On the ground level there was a small museum and an elevator to the main hall. The building contained the expected collection of dry historical artifacts and a towering statue of Chiang Kai-Shek. I don't think we would have missed much if we'd decided not to go inside.
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The morning markets were quite large and energetic, especially Dongmen which was labyrinthine. We put together a great lunch at the food court at Nanmen and topped it off with sashimi at Dongmen that was so fresh it glistened.
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We took a long walk to Huashan 1914 Creative Park, a collection of galleries, stores, and performance spaces housed in an abandoned factory complex. It was an interesting place, but not on the level with other reclaimed art communities that we've seen so we didn't stay long.
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Our next stop was Taipei 101, which was the tallest building in the world from 2004 to 2010. The skyscraper has a unique segmented design meant to evoke a stalk of bamboo, and is famous for the enormous steel pendulum suspended amid the upper floors. The pendulum acts as a mass damper to offset swaying caused by wind gusts. Because the weather and hence the visibility were so bad, we decided not to waste time and money standing on line for the elevator to the observation deck and therefore missed seeing the pendulum as well.
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Taipei 101 is surrounded by an enormous multilevel network of malls as well as the requisite basement food courts. After exploring for a couple of hours and letting the kids try out most of the displays at a toy store, it was time for dinner. Fortunately we were within walking distance of the Tonghua night market, which we had to hurry through as the incessant rain had strengthened into a downpour.
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We spent the entire day Friday on a road trip to Jiufen and Keelung which I'll cover in my Taipei day trips post. On Saturday we started the day with breakfast at the Qingguang morning market in the central Zhongshan neighborhood, then walked south to the Hope Plaza Farmers' Market. On the way we discovered a cool little sculpture park.
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The farmers' market was awesome, with a huge selection of fresh produce and artisanal foods. There was also a food court with plenty of dumplings and soups.
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After a brief stop at the Miniatures Museum we went back to Mei Ling's grandfather's house for dinner.large_7B838528D9CA11282A321202E297741A.jpglarge_IMG_1502.jpg

In the late evening we took a taxi to the Raohe night market which we enjoyed despite nonstop heavy rain. It amazes me how the Taiwanese crowds still came out in the evenings for the night markets regardless of the weather.

On Sunday we began our day with another market breakfast and then checked out a weekend crafts fair. The kids especially enjoyed watching bead necklaces being made. Afterwards, we walked to Daan Forest Park where the drizzle stopped just long enough for the kids to get a little playground time. The small pond in the park was absolutely packed with bird life.
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We joined Mei Ling's family for lunch and let the kids play at her aunt's house for the rest of the afternoon.
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In the evening we went to Addiction Aquatic Development, an oddly-named complex of seafood markets and restaurants in northern Taipei, not far from Shilin. I'd discovered it when searching for a major seafood market like Tsukiji in Tokyo or Noryangjin in Seoul. All my searching only identified this one location, which was variously described as a market and a restaurant. The confusion was likely due to the fact that the original fish market was redesigned in 2012 and was now predominantly devoted to restaurants and retail stores selling prepared seafood, with only one small market selling live fish. Either way, the market was nothing comparable to what we had experienced in other major East Asian cities. It seemed like there were far more Westerners here than we had seen anywhere else in Taipei as well.
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We eventually selected a restaurant and splurged on a couple of huge king crab legs as well as a shellfish hotpot. The most memorable thing about the meal wasn't the food itself, but the opportunity to make wasabi paste the traditional way by grating the root on the bottom of a spiky dish.

For the first time we got back to Ximending early enough to visit Red House, an imposing octagonal red brick structure just a block from our Airbnb. The building apparently contains some performance spaces but we only found a number of boutiques selling clothing and handicrafts.
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We spent most of our last day in the northern suburbs of Beitou and Tamsui, which I'll cover in detail in the day trips post. In the late afternoon we returned to Shilin where we had another home-cooked meal and Mei Ling's aunt taught Spenser some tai chi moves. We closed out our visit to Taipei with a final visit to the Shilin night market.
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Mainly due to the terrible weather, we missed a lot of things I had listed as worth seeing in Taipei such as Elephant Mountain, Songshan Park, and Treasure Hill. We also only made it to three of the more than ten named night markets. Fortunately, I know we'll be returning to Taipei when the kids are older and more independent and I'm sure we'll have better weather the next time. Hopefully I won't be too old by then to do the hiking and rafting that the rest of Taiwan is famous for.

Posted by zzlangerhans 07:24 Archived in Taiwan Tagged taipei night_markets Comments (0)

Around the World 2017: Exploring the boroughs of NYC


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Queens may have been the focus of this stay in New York City, but that didn't mean we were going to leave without visiting Manhattan. I've been to most of the major cities in the world, but I've never encountered anything like the collection of unique neighborhoods jostling against each other in downtown Manhattan. For lovers of cosmopolitan culture it has to be one of the most interesting areas in the world to walk around in. The only place I can think of that comes close is central London.

We kicked off our morning at the Union Square Greenmarket, the largest and most well-known farmer's market in the city. The setting surrounded by New York skyscrapers is incongruous, but New Yorkers are very discriminating when it comes to their food. The stalls were laden with the highest quality produce and there were countless options for artisanal meats and baked goods.
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After a light lunch with fresh-squeezed lemonade, we drove down to my favorite downtown neighborhood, Soho. There we discovered that street parking is currently non-existent, and were forced to pay extortionate rates at a lot. I think I paid forty-five dollars for three hours, and that was advertised as a deal. We found our way to Dean and Deluca, a gourmet food store I've been going to since I was kid growing up in Brooklyn. The store has gotten more and more crowded over the years, but it still has the best selection of hard-to-find delicacies that I've ever seen. We walked around the neighborhood and enjoyed the unique Soho atmosphere, and eventually ended up in a beautiful park tucked away amidst the brick apartment buildings.
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We drove back to Queens and visited a few more ethnic food stores on the way back to Flushing, where we met my college roommate George and his wife for a hot pot dinner. Then we all went back to the Chinese supermarket at New World Mall for another shopping trip before calling it a night.
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I had a lot of special events planned for Saturday. One of the huge advantages of living in a metropolitan area with more than ten million people is that there's never any shortage of activities. The only problem I had when looking at the list was choosing which ones would be the most fun. Eventually we settled on a scavenger hunt, a barbecue festival, a Brooklyn neighborhood party, and a Queens night market. In twelve years in Miami I've never been able to line up a day like that.

Our first stop was the Randall's Island Treasure Hunt, which turned out to be more of an orienteering activity without any actual treasure at the end. Nevertheless, the older kids had a great time perusing the map and scampering around the southern part of the island hunting for the next control point.
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One particularly beautiful spot on Randall's Island is beneath the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge to Queens. The arched concrete piers that support the section of the bridge that traverses the island look like the entrance to a palace created by a lost civilization of giants.
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We drove to downtown Manhattan where I was prepared for the parking situation with a new weapon, the SpotHero app. This app allows you to shop for parking garages online and purchase a space in advance for much less than you would pay just driving in. It makes a huge difference when parking downtown can cost forty dollars or more for a couple of hours. My fifteen dollar reservation worked like a charm and we took a short walk to Madison Square Park and the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party. This annual festival attracts barbecue specialists from around the country who set up trucks around the perimeter of the park. The park was crowded but we were able to find enough grass to put down our mat and I left Mei Ling to guard the kids while I foraged for barbecue.
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There was no shortage of things to see in the busy area around Madison Square Park. Just outside of the park we found a fresh-squeezed lemonade stand, the famous Flatiron Building, and a Hare Krishna parade.
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Thanks to the barbecue lunch was taken care of so we went back across the East River for Red Hook Fest, a community arts festival in Brooklyn. Red Hook was another area that used to be a "no-go" neighborhood when I was growing up in Brooklyn in the 70's and 80's. However, like Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant, the area has experienced a renaissance in recent years which has been spurred forward by the rebuilding effort after Hurricane Sandy. However, the lack of proximity to the subway seems to have prevented the same kind of hipster explosion that has transformed Williamsburg and LIC.

The festival was pleasant if somewhat low-key. The kids spent the time at an art tent and playing with paper planes while Mei Ling and I watched some activist-minded spoken word performances. Relaxing in the waterfront neighborhood park was a great way to spend the afternoon.
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The highlight of the day came at the end with a trip to the Queens International Night Market, a huge convocation of ethnic food stalls held every Saturday night in the summer in Flushing Meadows. Before gorging ourselves we treated the kids to a game of knockerball, where we rolled them around in enormous inflated balls on a grassy hillside. Fortunately, despite my trepidation, no one suffocated or threw up.
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The market stalls mostly featured cuisine from Latin America and East Asia. The selection was broad and the atmosphere was energetic, with both vendors and patrons reflecting New York's amazing cultural diversity that is unequaled anywhere in the world.
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After we'd filled up on meat skewers and ceviche, we hung out outside the market where they had a succession of DJ's and performers at an outdoor stage. The highlight was a crew of talented Asian breakdancers.

We started our last full day in New York at the Jackson Heights Greenmarket, a year-round Sunday farmers market in Queens. It was a pleasant, medium-sized produce market in a very diverse residential neighborhood. The market was adjacent to a community park with a huge jungle gym that made the kids' morning.
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We headed back close to our home base for LIC Flea and Food, a weekend craft and food market on the bank of the East River.
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We couldn't putter around the flea market for long, because we had to met old friends at the Bedford Avenue block party in Williamsburg. Naturally the kids found the art station right away, and got their first taste of tennis at an impromptu court laid down in the middle of the street. New York City is definitely a great place to be a kid in the summer.
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We spent the evening bouncing around ethnic food stores in Queens and then headed back to Flushing for more Asian food. After some hunting around, we found one of the legendary Xinjiang barbecue trucks for our final New York City meal. Our flight to Taipei the next day would be leaving before lunch time.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 17:25 Archived in USA Comments (2)

Around the World 2017: Queens, New York


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Since Mei Ling and I got married six years ago, we've experienced a cultural double life. We live in Miami, a city not known for Asian culture, but we frequently interact with the small Chinese community here. Mei Ling cooks incredible dinners that fuse the best of Asian and Occidental ingredients. Our kids are mixed of course, so it's important for us to keep them in touch with their Chinese heritage. Part of that means taking them to see the maternal half of their family in China every couple of years. The way it's worked out, every time we've gone back we've had a new kid to show off which adds a special quality to the reunion. We've also made a tradition out of expanding our China visits into around-the-world trips with multiple destinations, partially to mitigate the pain of flying halfway around the world in one day. The itinerary from Miami to Mudanjiang is particularly brutal, requiring three flights with long layovers and more than 26 hours of transit. In the past we've broken up our trip in such places as London, San Francisco, and Seoul. This time round we settled on New York City as our first stop, which is a great departure point for the Far East due to the polar shortcut. Mei Ling was also set on visiting Taipei to see her elderly great uncle. I've become addicted to European road trips so after much thought I chose a Scandinavian itinerary that would take about three weeks to complete. That meant we had to extend the trip to six weeks, our longest continuous trip ever. We decided to leave the day after the older kids finished school and return the day before Spenser turned two, in order to maximize the lap child discount.

New York City is both Mei Ling's and my favorite city in the world. I grew up in Brooklyn but left when I was 17, so I never got to experience the city as an adult native. However, my parents lived there until I was 40 and I have several friends there, so I was able to stay acquainted with New York through frequent visits. What I've always loved more than anything about Manhattan is how one can just walk around in the downtown neighborhoods and be assured of seeing unusual people, unique stores and galleries, and amazing performances. In the years since I left New York, the eastern boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens have flowered and become home to diverse communities of Asian and Latin American immigrants who maintain a close connection to their native lands. Those exotic influences have fused with urban renewal in formerly blighted and colorless neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Bushwick to create new hubs of cultural activity that are completely independent of Manhattan culture. New York City was a great place to grow up, but I feel that in the last twenty years it's only gotten better.

This was our fourth trip to New York City as a family. In the past we've stayed in the Upper East Side, Chinatown, and Williamsburg. This time we knew we were going to focus on the Queens culinary scene but still wanted to visit Manhattan and Brooklyn. The obvious choice was Long Island City, an up and coming neighborhood just north of Brooklyn and across the river from midtown Manhattan. We could get our funky hipster fix right where we were staying and have easy access to Queens all the way to Flushing via the Long Island Expressway and Roosevelt Ave. Pickings on Airbnb were very slim a month in advance, but I took a chance on a place with some mixed reviews that was about half the price of the cheapest acceptable hotel.

Another advantage of staying in the outer boroughs is that a rental car becomes feasible. New York's public transportation is very outdated with respect to the modern nerve centers of the city and is rather user unfriendly for strollers. Taxis are insanely expensive and Ubers can be hard to find. Therefore, the first place we found ourselves after getting off the plane was at the rental car agency picking up a spacious SUV with plenty of room on the back bench for three child seats. We drove straight to Flushing whose population is at least 50% Asian. The largest community of Asians in Flushing is Chinese, and Flushing's Chinatown has surpassed the original Manhattan Chinatown both in size and in its resemblance to a modern Chinese city.

One of the best places to sample authentic Chinese food in Flushing is at the enormous food court at New World Mall. Besides cuisines from various regions of China, there are also stalls providing selections from Korea, Japan, and Thailand. It would probably take a month of continuous eating to get through all the delicious options. We were already exhausted from the flight and the car pickup, so we made some quick selections of spicy seafood and Xi'an noodles. Mei Ling fed the kids while I made a video of the exuberant cornucopia of Asian cuisine all around us.
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We made a quick stop for necessities at the Chinese supermarket upstairs and then drove to Long Island City where we located the entry to our Airbnb after some difficulty. The place turned out to be perfect for us as it was clearly appointed for short-term rental and not someone's residence with artwork and bric-a-brac for the kids to break. The only slight disadvantage was a long, steep staircase up to the second floor apartment. However, all the kids seemed to enjoy the challenge of negotiating the steps.
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We woke up to a beautiful Thursday morning, perfect for a walk through the neighborhood to breakfast at LIC Market. Unfortunately LIC Market is not an actual market, but it still provided us with a decent and satisfying breakfast.
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After breakfast we continued exploring Long Island City on foot. It's an entertaining area that still shows many of the trappings of its colorless past of warehouses and office blocks, yet also has a large number of new-appearing ethnic restaurants and boutiques. It gives a sense of what Williamsburg must have been like about ten years ago before it exploded into the hipster paradise it is today.
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We found our way back to the car and took a short drive up to Euro Market in Astoria, where we marveled at the enormous selections of Eastern European beers, preserves, and cheeses.
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It was still early enough to spend a few hours at the Brooklyn Children's Museum so we decided to fill the rest of our afternoon there. This is the oldest children's museum in the United States, and I'm fairly sure I never went there as a child. That's probably because my Mom considered the area to be too seedy to venture into, but like many other parts of Brooklyn Crown Heights has experienced a lot of gentrification in recent years. The neighborhood was full of the beautiful bowfront Victorian houses that are typical of Brooklyn.
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The museum turned out to be a lot of fun for the kids and a good way to spend an afternoon. I found it much better than the Children's Museum we have in Miami, but not as good as the one in Houston. We headed back to Long Island City for a solid dinner at the Brazilian restaurant Beija Flor, which thankfully was half empty at that early hour.
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After dinner we still felt a lot of NYC energy so we drove east on legendary Roosevelt Avenue in Queens. As the avenue courses eastward underneath the elevated track of the 7 train, it passes through diverse ethnic neighborhoods each of which boasts its own cluster of ethnic restaurants and street food kiosks. Our first stop was Little Bangladesh, in Jackson Heights, to taste jhal muri from Baul Daada's tiny kiosk. The puffed rice snack came out so spicy that I could barely force down a couple of mouthfuls. We saved the rest for later.

We strolled around the neighborhood for a little while visiting South Asian markets and absorbing the atmosphere. Eventually we got back on Roosevelt Ave and drove all the way to the enormous Asian supermarket Sky Foods in Flushing. Despite the size, we didn't come across anything we couldn't have found at our favorite Asian supermarket back home. The turtles did look very tasty though.
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We were tempted to stop in the Central and South American section of Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights for another dose of street food but in the end fatigue overcame us and we finally surrendered to exhaustion.

Posted by zzlangerhans 10:37 Archived in USA Tagged new_york_city brooklyn queens long_island_city Comments (0)

Magical Islands: Agrigento and Erice


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We had a smooth, uneventful drive up the southern coast of Sicily to Agrigento. This was a well-maintained, flat stretch of highway with little traffic and pleasant views of rolling hillsides, farmland, and occasionally the coastline.
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By the time we arrived in Agrigento everyone was recovered from seasickness and looking forward to lunch. Mei Ling had picked a well-reviewed restaurant in the center of town from TripAdvisor. Unfortunately, either I took a wrong turn or our GPS misguided us and we found ourselves in a tangle of narrow streets, steep inclines, and dead ends. I bravely attempted to navigate through it but eventually we came to a spot where it seemed unlikely that our car would pass through undamaged. Mei Ling got out and helped me reverse the car through a very unpleasant sequence of sharp turns on an upward slope until we reached the main street again. It seems that we'll never manage to get through a European road trip without at least one experience like that, although I think we're getting better at avoiding them. I think if we'd had a minivan we never would have made it back out with both tail lights.

The old town rewarded us for our persistence with several pretty churches and squares on the main street Via Athenea.
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Our chosen restaurant was closed on Mondays as were most of the others we passed, but eventually we found a very pleasant place with an outdoor terrace and decent food.
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From Agrigento it was a short drive to the Valley of the Temples, probably the most famous archaeologic site in Sicily. Close to the site we stopped at a cafe on the side of the road for ice cream and views of the Temple of Hercules and the town.
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We spent a lot of energy getting Cleo excited about the temples so that she wouldn't complain about the walk, but in typical fashion she fell asleep soon after we arrived. Ian ended up being the one who got to pose with the statue of fallen Icarus in front of the Temple of Concordia. It was a pleasant walk but once again I was reminded how much I preferred exploring the old quarters of modern cities to bumping shoulders with other tourists at ancient sites.
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We would have liked to stop at Scala dei Turchi but it was already getting late and we wanted to get an early dinner. This was the only night for which I hadn't booked accommodation in advance, since I wasn't sure where we would end up on our long drive along the southern coast. After Agrigento, Sciacca was the obvious choice and fortunately my gamble on a last minute booking paid off. Casale La Zagara was a little hard to find, even with GPS, but they provided us with a very comfortable apartment in attractive surroundings. We had a surprisingly difficult time locating a restaurant that wasn't booked solid on a Monday evening, but eventually found a small place in the old town that provided a typically mediocre Sicilian restaurant meal.

The next morning we explored downtown Sciacca. There was only one major street, unsurprisingly named Corso Vittorio Emanuele. The avenue was pleasantly atmospheric and devoid of tourists.
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We stopped at one of the lunch kiosks in Piazza Saverio Friscia for what would turn out to be our last spleen sandwiches of the trip.
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At the end of Corso Vittorio Emanuele was a small park called Villa Communale with views of the shoreline and the modern part of the town to the west. It was a good spot for the kids to stretch their legs and enjoy the Mediterranean breeze.
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Our first stop out of Sciacca was Il Castello Incantato, a strange estate left behind by the sculptor Filippo Bentivegna. Bentivegna was an eccentric character who spent the later part of his life sculpting heads and faces out of stones he extracted from rock walls. After his death in 1967, the estate was restored and the stone heads were strategically placed along pathways and terraces. The site is full of trees and prickly pear cactus as well as a small and spooky network of limestone caves. We found a loquat tree that was laden with delicious ripe fruit and spent nearly as much time eating loquats as we did on the rest of the estate.
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After Sciacca the highway turned inland so there wasn't much scenery on the way to the town I had picked out for lunch, Mazara del Vallo. This ancient fishing town is famous for its lasting Arabic character. The Kasbah quarter of town is home to thousands of Sicilians of North African descent as well as more recent immigrants. The old town was much more impressive than I had expected, with atmospheric narrow streets and beautiful churches.
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The Tunisian restaurant in Kasbah I had selected turned out to be closed on Tuesdays, so we had to scramble to find another place to eat. We ended up at a higher end restaurant where we were fortunately the only customers. It ended up being the most expensive meal of the trip, thanks to the seafood platter and the exorbitantly-priced scarlet shrimp.
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Our last major destination of the trip was also one of our most highly anticipated. The mountaintop walled town of Erice is on every must-see list for Sicily. Instead of driving the winding road up the mountain, I elected to take the cable car from Trapani. I had been warned about the scam artists at the parking lot who falsely claim the lot is closed and demand payment for parking elsewhere, so I wasn't surprised to see some sketchy characters sitting on the curb outside the entrance. I didn't even make eye contact as they jumped up and started shouting at me as I drove into the lot. The cable car turned out to be the right choice, as everyone loved the views over Trapani and the Mediterranean as the gondola rose into the clouds.
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Once we got off the cable car in Erice, we walked straight to Castello di Venere via Viale Conte Pepoli just outside the city wall. We had amazing views of the green countryside below us through the clouds, as well as the castle up ahead.
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Every castle and mountaintop village we had seen in Sicily so far had its own unique character, from the noble ruins atop La Rocca di Cefalu to lively, modern Castelmola. Nothing that we had seen compared to the incredible views from Castello di Venere. To the east we could see the town of Valderice as though we were looking out the window of an airplane. Further to the northeast was the hulking mass of Monte Cofano at the shoreline. Just to the north we could see two other beautiful castles, the Torri del Balio and below it the relatively modern Torretta Pepoli.
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We stopped at a viewpoint close by the Castello di Venere for a look back at the majestic ruins perched on the tree-covered precipice.
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Having sated ourselves on clifftop castles and amazing views, we plunged into the triangular maze of cobblestone streets within the walled city. It was clearly a touristy place, but once again the time of year and our late day arrival worked in our favor. We had the streets and squares largely to ourselves.
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We stopped at Caffe San Giuliano for snacks and mulled wine, and were treated very kindly by the proprietors. Cleo and Ian were shocked when the owner bounced what appeared to be a brown egg, but was actually a rubber ball, on the floor in front of them.
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By the time we reached the 15th century Chiesa Matrice near the cable car station, the sun was starting to go down and an ominous fog was rolling in. Cleo looked like a little bug next to the imposing Norman edifice.
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Erice was a fitting conclusion to our amazing two week tour of Sicily and Malta. There was only one important task left, which was to find a memorable final dinner. Fortunately, the top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor in all of Trapani Province was on the way to our Airbnb near the Palermo Airport. I Sapori Siciliana turned out to be a grill combined with a butcher shop and a beautiful delicatessen. The meat was quite good, although I was skeptical that a better restaurant couldn't be found in all of Trapani. Of course, TripAdvisor is a very flawed method of choosing the best restaurant given the way it incorporates people's biases towards inexpensive comfort food. Nevertheless, when traveling quickly through an unfamiliar area it's really the best tool available.
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We spent the usual restless final night in a very basic Airbnb in Terrasini, and dropped the car off at the airport early in the morning. Alitalia did their very best to ruin our trip back to Miami. Their agents were so slow to check people in that the flight to Palermo took off forty minutes late, and once on the tarmac in Rome they couldn't seem to figure out how to get the passengers from the tarmac to the terminal. All of this incompetence was naturally accompanied by the casual rudeness we learned to expect from Alitalia employees from our arrival experience. Eventually we made our connection by a hair and settled in for the ten hour flight back to Miami.
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The Sicily adventure was one of our most enjoyable European road trips to date. In retrospect there probably isn't much I would have changed. A few extra days would have been nice of course, but we maxed out the time I felt comfortable taking off work and taking Cleo out of school. Sicily is a difficult task for a short trip because the top sights are scattered around the island. No trip to Sicily would be complete without stops in Erice, Palermo, Taormina, Siracusa, the Baroque cities, and the southern coast. I loved inland Sicily and Catania as well, although these rarely make the lists of top tourist attractions. One problem we have on these trips is the restaurants. No matter what we try, we can't seem to find those epic meals that we expect in countries like Italy, France, and Spain. With the kids we can't go for the Michelin stars, but it still surprises me how seemingly well-regarded casual restaurants fall short of our expectations. Our standards aren't unrealistic - there are several very authentic Italian restaurants in Miami that I find preferable to virtually anything we've found in Italy itself. Don't even get me started on the amazing Italian restaurants in Boston and New York City. So how does one find these places in Italy? I guess we'll just have to keep going until we figure it out.

Posted by zzlangerhans 03:32 Archived in Italy Tagged erice agrigento mazara_del_vallo sciacca Comments (0)

Magical Islands: Malta


View Sicily and Malta on zzlangerhans's travel map.

Malta was one of those countries that used to be on my travel bubble. If I ever made it there, fine. If I didn't, I wasn't going to lose any sleep about it. However, it always seemed like an interesting place and the idea for the Sicily road trip originally started as a laid-back week just in Malta. It wasn't until I started looking into a brief detour to Sicily that the trip morphed into what it ultimately became.

Given its central Mediterranean location, it was inevitable that Malta was colonized and conquered by virtually every major civilization that dominated the region over the millennia. Malta's last controlling force was the British Empire, which set the stage for the island's sovereignty when the Empire crumbled in the 20th century. Maltese culture, language, and architecture are a strange hybrid of Latinate, Arabic, and Northern European elements.

Arriving into Malta's Grand Harbor is a breathtaking experience. The ferry passes between two massive medieval forts at the mouth and then traverses the entire length of the harbor with Valletta's elevated old town on the right and the peninsular Three Cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua on the left. The view probably hasn't changed much in the last five hundred years, so one can imagine the awe that a Renaissance era sailor must have felt entering this formidable island stronghold.

We had decided not to bring our car, mainly because I didn't feel comfortable driving on the left side of the road. I know many people switch sides without any concern, but I have a tendency to let my thoughts wander while driving and I couldn't shake the fear of driving head on into another car while absentmindedly reverting to the right side of the road. I was curious to see how we could handle transportation with the three kids using just buses and taxis. When we got off the ferry in Valletta, I was surprised to see the disembarking passengers quickly melt away leaving our family alone at the terminal exit. There were no taxis in sight, and my Italian SIM wasn't functional in Malta. Fortunately there was one last passenger awaiting a ride, and the driver of the car who came to pick her up called us a taxi. Despite an extremely short ride to our Airbnb, our fare was quite high. That was when I realized we probably wouldn't have the option of using taxis to get between different destinations on the island.

The Airbnb was a gorgeous modernized three level apartment in an ancient building in the Floriani neighborhood, at the edge of the old town. Our very kind and friendly hostess settled us in, and we immediately packed up the kids for a walk into the old town. From the elevated promenade we could see the Three Cities across the harbor and the elevator that brought people up from the Valletta waterfront.
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In the old town we encountered two large Easter processions close to St. John's Co-Cathedral. The parades were anchored by enormous religious floats that men carried on their shoulders. Watching them strain and sweat under the wooden beams was enough to make my own shoulders hurt.

We didn't have any luck at the two neighboring bistros I had targeted in the old town. One was closed and the other was booked solid. We tried a couple of others close by that were also booked and decided we would have to downscale our ambitions a little. Close to the center of the old town we found a busy corner with several pub-style restaurants with outdoor tables, and I chose the most promising after reviewing its menu. There weren't any free tables outside so we sat at the only table inside. The waitress brought over the menus, which didn't look familiar at all. I'd accidentally walked inside the wrong restaurant. I ran across the alley to the first place but they didn't have any tables open, so rather than uproot everyone I decided to bite the bullet and order. Surprisingly, dinner turned out to be our second best restaurant meal of the trip after Al Saraceno in Taormina. Sometimes the best meals are the result of careful planning, and sometimes they're the result of dumb luck.
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The next day we broke out our bus map and took a short walk to the Floriani C stop on Triq Sant' Anna, the main drag of the Valletta peninsula. We had an uncomfortably long wait for our bus, to the extent that we started to wonder if it would actually come at all. Eventually one showed up as I was researching where the other bus lines would take us. It took about half an hour to reach Ta' Qali park, where there was a Saturday farmers market we wanted to check out. I was monitoring our progress on Google Maps, and at one point it seemed that the driver was going to bypass Ta' Qali completely and proceed to Mdina. The driver suddenly seemed to realize the same thing because he abruptly pulled the bus over and turned and looked back at me. He seemed to be giving me some instructions using a combination of Maltese and hand gestures, but the only interpretation I could come up with was that he wanted me to help him back up the bus which seemed improbable. After a minute of this, an older man went to the doors which the driver then opened, and he actually went behind the bus and directed him back onto a side street so he could make a U-turn back to Ta' Qali. That was my first time both for being on a bus whose driver forgot the route and for being on a bus that made a U-turn.

The market wasn't anything close to what we had seen in Catania and Palermo, but we were able to put together a meal of chicken and rigatoni from the one cooked food vendor that was there.
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I had no idea where the closest bus stop was but we could see the medieval town of Mdina in the distance so I figured we could walk there if we had to. There was also something called Ta' Qali Crafts Village on the way, which I figured would be an interesting place to break from walking and see some local artisans. The walk ended up feeling much longer than we'd expected, perhaps because it was by far the warmest day we'd experienced so far on the trip.
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The crafts village didn't turn out to be that exciting as it consisted mainly of showrooms, and we didn't stick around for long. We felt way too overheated to keep walking to Mdina, and one of the gallery owners directed us to a bus stop. Once again we had a ferocious wait for a bus, which appeared to be coming on an hourly schedule. Eventually we got picked up and taken to Mdina, which was very pretty and well-preserved but also extremely touristy. The absence of any sign of native life inside the walls was reminiscent of La Cité de Carcassonne. We did enjoy the view northeast from the highest section of the walls as the kids slurped ice cream from one of the innumerable gelaterias in the medieval city.
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On leaving Mdina, we saw one of the Hop-On Hop-Off doubledecker tourist buses outside and decided that might be a better way to see the rest of the island than the infrequent regular buses. It was quite expensive, and the driver had a hard time believing I wanted to buy the tickets so late in the day. Nevertheless, I had no regrets as we pulled away from Mdina and we had excellent views of the walled city from the upper deck of the bus. Another highlight of our drive-by tour was Santa Marija Assunta church in Mgarr.
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We decided to hop off the bus in Bugibba, which seemed like an energetic spot towards the northern end of the island. However, we soon realized that virtually all of the activity on the street consisted of lobster-red teenaged tourists from England pre-drinking for the evening's mating rituals. I split a beer with Ian (well, maybe he had a tenth of it) and we sought an exit strategy. We'd missed the last tourist bus so I used the wifi at McDonald's to chart a public bus route with Google Maps. This time the bus came mercifully quickly and we found ourselves back at the main bus station just outside Valletta old town.
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We had better luck getting into one of our chosen restaurants this time round, probably because we hit the restaurant row on Old Bakery Street just as they were beginning to open. Top choice Rubino turned us away but after some internal debate Capistrano gave us a table. They asked us if we could be out by 8:30 which was two hours away, and I told them we'd be thrilled to get out much quicker than that if they could make it happen.
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Soon after we ordered, a couple of women with Scandinavian accents came in with a little girl who was about six. They didn't have a reservation either, and the maître d' really didn't want to seat them. While they argued, the little girl came over and started watching Cleo's iPad over her shoulder. Eventually the staff relented and the Scandinavian women were guided to a staircase leading to another dining room downstairs. The little girl didn't want to go, so we told the women she was welcome to stay with us until their food came. She watched cartoons on the iPad with Cleo until our food arrived, and then watched on her own while Cleo was eating. Ironically, the food wasn't as good as our randomly chosen pub grub from the night before. We got through the entire dinner and were given our check without any reappearance from the Scandinavian women from the downstairs dining room. Eventually Mei Ling had to bring the little girl back to her family. I can't imagine leaving Cleo out of our sight for close to forty minutes with strangers. Perhaps that's an individual thing, or maybe it's cultural. I guess we'll have an opportunity to find out when we spend three weeks in Scandinavia this summer.

Sunday morning we walked down to the waterfront to catch the double decker tourist bus to the weekly Marsaxlokk fish market. I led us to the official Valletta waterfront area but we couldn't find the bus stop. All the businesses were closed and there was no one around to ask. Eventually we figured out that the stop was a good distance eastward and not in the commercial waterfront area at all. Once we got close to the stop we saw a bus there with a lot of people standing next to it and ran full tilt so as not to miss it. Just as we arrived a second bus pulled up with some people already on it and everyone immediately pushed their way onto the new bus. We didn't even come close to getting on before the bus filled up. It seemed the first bus was having some kind of mechanical problem. Neither bus moved for a few minutes and then they told all the newcomers to get off the second bus. Foreseeing what was about to happen, we jumped onto the first bus as soon as the door opened and I took the older kids to the upper deck. Whatever problem the bus had was now solved, and soon we departed. Amidst all the confusion no one asked us to buy tickets, but I didn't feel badly because the previous day we had paid an entire day's fare for just one leg of the route.

My research had prepared me for the Marsaxlokk market to be touristy, but it was still a disappointment. There was very little in the way of seafood to be seen, and very large amounts of tourist schlock. However, the waterside area was still very pretty with the old buildings lining the promenade and the brightly-colored boats anchored in the harbor.
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After a seafood lunch at one of the harborside restaurants, we walked back to the promenade and allowed ourselves to be convinced to take a boat tour to St. Peter's Pool despite gathering storm clouds. The motorboat was just large enough for ourselves and one other family. It was a pleasant ride out of the harbor although it started getting very windy as we rounded Delimara Point.
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There was a decent number of people enjoying themselves at the natural semicircular pool, and our driver idled the boat so we could watch a couple of them take the plunge off the fifteen foot overhang.
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On the way back it started raining fairly briskly and the waves kicked up as well, so it was quite a cold and uncomfortable return that seemed much longer than the outward leg. Fortunately the real downpour didn't start until we were back on land so we were able to make it into a cafe without getting completely soaked, and we waited out the rain over hot chocolate.

The area of Malta we were most curious about and hadn't yet visited was Vittoriosa, the central of the Three Cities. Vittoriosa, also known as Birgu, is an impressively fortified peninsula with its own extensive history as an independent city. The public bus dropped us off in the main square and we made our way down to the yacht marina on the western shore. At the tip of the peninsula is the Fort Saint Angelo which is only connected to the rest of Vittoriosa by a narrow bridge that crosses another tiny marina. Inside here was a restaurant that one could park one's boat immediately outside and a noble-appearing archway connecting the fort to the mainland.
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Just inland from the marina is the beautiful St. Lawrence's Church with its distinctive red domes.
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We spent an hour or so exploring the nearly-deserted interior of the small city. We found this much more to our liking than Mdina, despite the absence of gelaterias on every street corner. The narrow streets were lined with weathered, ancient buildings that showed interesting signs of their modern inhabitants.
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We had to time dinner carefully to catch the hourly bus back to the Valletta main station, and eventually settled on another pub called Cafe Du Brazil in the central square near the bus stop. Despite its somewhat gritty appearance, they provided a very satisfying dinner which included a delicious braised rabbit. We finished our last meal in Malta somewhat mystified as to how these very downscale-appearing pubs acquitted themselves so well in the kitchen. We never did discover what the connection was with Brazil, as there wasn't anything remotely Brazilian on the menu.

We took a slightly different route back to the Airbnb from the bus station and encountered the magnificently illuminated Church of St. Publius.
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Our ferry departure was at 6:30 in the morning, so we had arranged in advance to be picked up at 5:00 by the same driver who had brought us there from the port. Unfortunately, 5:15 came and went with no sign of the driver and I didn't have any way to call in him. I sent an e-mail, which naturally went unanswered, so we threw the kids in the strollers and I put Spenser on my back and we began the long walk to the ferry terminal. Fortunately we'd left our large bag in the car in Pozzallo, but it was still a painful effort to schlep the strollers, backpacks, and suitcase almost a mile to the terminal. We'd given ourselves plenty of time, so we weren't in any real danger of missing the ferry, but by the time we got ourselves up to the deck we were exhausted.

I was looking forward to a relaxing ride back to Pozzallo with groggy kids, but as soon as the ferry left its mooring it was clear that wasn't going to happen. The enormous boat immediately began to pitch from side to side to a degree I'd never experienced on a ferry. I looked outside and saw huge swells and troughs everywhere. Within five minutes the first people started to reach for their motion sickness bags. I kept a watchful eye on Spenser in his stroller. He seemed nonchalant at first, but then started crying and almost immediately threw up his breakfast. I cleaned him up and then Mei Ling took him in her arms and he fell asleep. Within half an hour it seemed like half the passengers were heaving into their bags. Mei Ling was sick as well by this point. I hoped the older kids would be OK, since they'd never had any motion sickness problems, but even Ian finally lost it after about an hour. Only Cleo and I got through the ride unscathed. I guess she'll be the one joining me on fishing trips when she gets a little older.

We ended our visit to Malta with mixed feelings. It's certainly a unique place, thanks to its long history and mix of influences, but it falls short of many other parts of Europe when it comes to atmosphere. Except for Vittoriosa, much of what we saw had a plasticky, artificial veneer that seemed geared towards package tourists. Of course, we never made it to the smaller island of Gozo that contains many of Malta's most famous natural attractions. It's also likely that the main island keeps many secrets that we simply didn't have enough time or mobility to discover. However, given the amount of Europe and the rest of the world that we still have to explore, I don't foresee us returning.

We retrieved our car and loaded up our still-queasy crew. It was only eight in the morning and we had to be in Agrigento by lunchtime.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:04 Archived in Malta Tagged malta valletta mdina marsaxlokk birgu vittoriosa bugibba Comments (1)

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