Researching Malta, most of the focus centered on the summer weather, the beaches, the bath-warm seas. But since we were visiting in January, these didn’t really apply. We’d seen a few items about walking trails, and that sounded good, but didn’t pay too much attention. At just 26 square miles, we weren’t sure how much the island could cram in. The answer truly surprised us. No matter which direction we walked from our home in Marsalforn, the views stunned. Every town and corner of the island had a distinct personality and landscape.
Inland to the southeast of us, the small town of Xaghra held a mysterious Neolithic temple and a more modern Parish Church which stunned us with its intricate interior. Following the coastal trail rather than the road, we passed small cliffs high above the green slopes. Below us the Mediterranean wrapped itself around the island’s shore. Ending up at Ramla Beach, the temperatures were almost nice enough for sun bathing.
Walking west from our apartment led to another set of views entirely. Along the low rocky coast, salt pans are still active in hotter seasons. The shallow pools reflected sea and sky, a myriad of blues. Often people fished. The only downside was passing by the shooting range; the sharp pop of guns didn’t add anything to the day.
Soon the ground swelled upward. The shoreline grew steeper, finally reaching vertical around Wied Il-Mielah, a striking sea arch. The Azure Window, the more famous arch, crashed into the sea in 2017. Il-Mielah has seen an uptick in visitors but still feels underappreciated. A few climbers scaled the sides and a family took photos along the viewing ledge. Continuing beyond this arch, the cliffs took over.
The path, marked with red blazes, wandered though lunar-like landscapes of wind-smoothed stone. In other spots the ground was lush with flowers. And thistles, too. It was a ‘calm’ day my Maltese standards, the wind only picking up to 15 miles an hour or so, but coming over the top of the rock it gusted at random intervals.
Rounding the northwest corner of the island, we lost the path for a bit. But with help from Google Maps we got back on track and soon the area around Dwejra was in sight. The island drops away into the blue, a wide horizon shows off the sunset. With no more Azure Window, there are fewer tourists. And most stayed near where the tour bus dropped them off. We preferred the areas a bit further out – from Wied Il-Mielah all the way to the end of the hike, we only saw three other people.
Starting another hike at Xlendi, we again hugged the tops of the cliffs. The Sanap and Ta’ Cenc cliffs are just as high as those near Dwejra, though they curve a bit less so there are fewer views photo opportunities. As we neared Mgarr, where the Gozo Channel Line docks their ferries, the trail dipped to sea’s edge. We skirted under hills formed of layers of gray clay and near rocky beaches.
Coming back from a long hike, a tasty treat was an order. We visited Ta’ Mena Estate during our first week and brought home a hefty load of wines, local cheeses, salt, and konserva (a thick tomato paste blended with salt and sugar, great on toast). Their wines were especially tempting, relatively cheap but wonderfully rich. We went back several times to restock. Beer was thinner on the ground, but the island’s single brewery, Lord Chambray, works to reverse that trend. They craft several styles and were happy to give us a tour of their space as well. My favorite proved to be their Flinders Rose, a gose beer made with local sea salt and caper flowers.
Kevin made a traditional rabbit stew with fresh meat, letting it simmer on the stovetop for hours. It lasted for several days and only got better with time. If we passed through Victoria, the island’s capital, we stopped for pastizzi (a flaky pastry stuffed with cheese or peas) or qassatat (a larger, doughier cheese or spinach pastry). Both cost just a few cents and filled us up quickly.
Between long walks, beautiful scenery, tasty local dishes, and the ever-present Mediterranean, Gozo might be my favorite spot to spend a winter. With just a handful of other tourists and a relaxed pace of life, we felt like we could explore the island on our own schedule.
All over the world, we met people who adored Prague. It topped many ‘best of’ lists for tourists and digital nomads alike. We once spent part of an evening insisting that Poland’s beer was the world’s greatest only to have that adamantly denied by those who had been to the Czech Republic (Spoiler: we were all wrong – Lithuania is the uncontested beer champion).
Flying out of Uruguay was pricey, and Prague was on the cheaper end of the spectrum. With all we’d heard, we decided to re-cross the Atlantic heading to the Czechia’s capital. It took three flights, 25 hours of travel time, and one frantic connection in Lisbon with staff getting us past the thousand-person immigration line. We landed in Prague in late afternoon – enough time to find our Airbnb, get groceries, make supper. Forty hours with no sleep and a five-hour time zone shift didn’t leave energy for much else.
Fortunately, by the next afternoon we had enough rest to head to Czech Beer Fest, just two blocks from our apartment. Scores of beers – all served in the proper glass – begged to be tried. I’m not much of a beer-drinker, but I clearly needed to embrace it for the month. From the first sip, it put much of South America’s offerings to shame, and I found a few I could actually enjoy. Combined with the goulash soup, hearty sausage and chicken plates, and the frat parties, the Festival was worth going to… and at about $2US per beer, far cheaper than drinking out in Seattle even if it was high for Prague.
My sister-in-law arrived for a week visit a few days later. We all took in some of the Prague Old Town, beer gardens, the Prague Castle, and the Lego Museum. The Cathedral of St. Vitus in the Castle might be the single grandest sight in the city. The (relatively new) stained glass windows are beautiful. Even though the Cathedral is crowded, it still feels calmer and cooler than the streets outside.
My cousin and his wife also happened to be in Prague during our stay (the most family we’ve seen on the trip so far). We met them at Letná Beer Garden, one of the most relaxing spots in the city for afternoon drinks, and at U Kunštátů, a craft beer bar with a multiple-page menu of beers where even I found plenty to enjoy.
Prague Museum Night happens annually in June – for one night museums open their doors late, don’t charge admission, and are linked by free shuttles running all over Prague. We took in the multiple art museums near Prague Castle and one of the synagogues downtown.
There is plenty of street art just waiting to be found; even the river is decked out with sculpture. We walked by the Dancing House on the way to a Craft Beer Festival. Apparently its fame isn’t enough to keep the offices completely full. This smaller beer fest, associated with a farmer’s market, was even better than the first. Prices were just as cheap and the small breweries were dedicated to creating tasty products.
I was surprised by how literary Prague is. There are multiple statues of Kafka and of other famous writers and poets throughout the city. And, of course, there are libraries. Sadly, the Klementium Library was closed during our visit but others were open. We found this book sculpture in one of the public libraries downtown.
And the Strahov Library, often confused with the Klementium, was open for visits. Its two halls, the Philosophical and the Theological, managed to fill my library quota for the month by themselves. Thousands of books housed in intricately painted and carved halls… what more do you need?
The Uber driver who picked us up at the airport warned that Czech food was mediocre. However, the city seemed full of options after two months in Uruguay. Goulash soups, sauerkraut, sausages, and local gelato were all fantastic. And restaurants catered to tastes from every corner of the globe – we had our first good pho and Asian stir-fry since leaving Europe eight months earlier. Grocery stores had peanut crisps and ajvar, two of my favorite snacks that are hard to come by outside the region.
While Prague lived up to descriptions we’d heard, some parts weren’t for us. The Old Town was mobbed each day by sightseers and by night with drinkers. We witnessed more stag and bachelorette parties here than in our entire lives up to this point. And while most of the drinking was relatively contained and amusing, it still can be obnoxious, especially at 2 pm on a Tuesday. Prague is cheaper than many European capitals, but that gap is closing. Certain museums and eateries overcharge wildly in the city center and in areas heavily populated with expats.
Those minor complaints aside, I’d return to Prague. The parks, beer gardens, relaxed atmosphere, and international feel were a welcome change of pace for us. Those high quality of life ratings are definitely well-earned.
So far, the southeastern side of South America is not a great foodie destination. Sure, if you are into grilling this might be close to heaven, but for most other flavors, there isn’t a lot to satiate the taste buds. Much like neighboring Argentina, meals are centered on meat and starch. In a country where there are many times more cattle than people, it isn’t surprising that beef seems to be the ingredient of choice. Heavy Italian and Spanish influences also brought over pizza, gelato, and lots of pastas. Wine is here too, though that industry is smaller and the choices a bit plainer due to the climate.
Since our arrival, we’ve eaten our way through more cuts of meat than I knew existed. They are almost universally tasty, and I’ve discovered that I really do like chorizo. Cooking on the parrilla (here it is pronounced ‘paireeSHa’ rather than ‘paireeYa’ – Rioplatense-accented Spanish is only mildly confusing for us) is an incredibly common way to prepare everything that once had legs or fins. A slatted metal grate off to the side of the fire ensures the meat cooks without burning to a crisp. Fancy restaurants and people tending open grills on the street all give equal respect to the deliciousness that ensues from this way of cooking. Some days it was hard to walk around without hunger pains because grills were going streetside, wafting the smells between the buildings.
We had birthdays this month, which gave us an excuse to head to Mercado del Puerto for a mixed parrilla for two. We wanted to sample a variety platter, and Cabana Veronica obliged. The building is home to at least a dozen parrilla restaurants, and the entire place smells wonderful. Open flames rise from grills all around and it is clearly a place where tourists and locals alike come to enjoy an afternoon with friends and family over food. The pile of tasty grilled beef and chicken arrived at our table after twenty minutes or so. We were also presented with a large bowl of salad – clearly it is like veggies served at steak restaurants – not really expected to be eaten. Quarters of chicken, two or three cuts of beef, chorizo, morcilla salado were all delicious. The only confusion for us was how to eat the sweetbreads. We tried one but clearly there is an aspect to them we didn’t understand; there was enough other meats to keep us occupied anyway, so we didn’t worry too much about it. Everything was grilled to perfection, and we left happy.
My favorite discovery during this stay was morcilla salado – salty blood sausage. I’d never have guessed that I would find it tasty when we started into the parrilla mixta. Cooking it at home only made me more fond of it; it can go on toast with breakfast or with rice for dinner. It is salty with a smooth texture, which is why it can be a spread as well. Uruguay is also has a second popular kind of blood sausage – morcilla dulce – a sweetened version. Stuffed with grapes, orange peels, peanuts, almonds, membrillos (which are a bit like jello), it is not your average meat-in-a-tube. We baked some and it tasted like a mix between mulled wine and a gingerbread house. I don’t think I’ll be craving that one as often as the salty version, but it would fit in as a Christmas food.
Milanesas are another favorite local way to eat meat. Despite the hype, we discovered it is basically the same thing as chicken-fried steak. We favored the chicken over the steak version, but they clearly use better cuts of meat than school lunches from our childhood and the breading has a mix of mild spices inside. Another way to get rid of the ‘lesser’ cuts of meat is to bury them in a chivito sandwich – between cheese, tomato, lettuce, eggs, and possibly bacon. Locals claim these sandwiches are a huge mass of calories that will leave you stuffed. Either we went to a restaurant that served a light version or the huge portions we grew up around have warped our understanding of appropriate meal size. We each devoured one and the full serving of fries and could have eaten more (not that it would have been good for us). And if hand-held, travel-ready packets of food are called for, there are empanadas everywhere. We had Venezuelan style made with carne picada and carne machada in maize dough, but also more traditional Uruguayan ones with flour-based wraps. Stuffed bread never gets old for me!
To go with all this meat, we arrived just in time to explore the fall harvest. Squashes, eggplants, and pumpkins feature prominently in veggie dishes. Once all the difficult slicing and chopping is out of the way, they are great fried or baked. Kevin had even gotten good at stuffing them – baking a half in the oven and then filling it with chorizos or ground beef.
Like elsewhere in South America, there still isn’t much of a choice for yummy snacks or desserts. Prices for chips are much higher than in the US – think $3-4 dollars for a small 100 gram bag of chips. As a result, popcorn has been the cure for my crunch fix. The only chipish items I’ve found that are made locally are crunchy puffs, but they always taste stale and relatively flavorless.
Since we were in Montevideo during the Easter season, we did get to enjoy the traditional decorated chocolate eggs. Ours was a mid-sized version, but some are larger than footballs and feature whole scenes of butterflies or swans. These are clearly meant to be the centerpiece for table on Easter. Other desserts are often fruit-, cookie-, or cake-based. Just like in Argentina, alfajors and dulce de leche are everywhere. I am always left hungry for more chocolate though. Expensive imitation Nutella will have to do for now…
Mate is the national drink; it gives everyone a reason to go to the beach, a chance to relax with friends, and take a break in the afternoon. Every grocery store seems to spend more shelf space on mate than on anything else. All over town, we would see people carrying the hollowed-out gourd in the crook of one arm and a thermos of hot water on the other. There is a whole market for custom-made leather carriers and the special bombilla straws used to drink it. It is interesting in that it is strictly a do-it-yourself drink – no restaurant will put it on a menu, and the most you can ever hope to find in a market is the dried leaves or a vendor selling extra hot water. A large part of the mate experience is preparing it yourself, to just your specifications. The water must be brought to an almost-boil, the leaves added to the cup and shaken just so, sugar or no, the whole mix has to be kept still while allowed to steep, then the rest of the water is added. One batch of leaves can be refilled a dozen times, so it becomes a communal way to spend part of an afternoon. It is slightly bitter, and despite the filtering straw, I always end up with bits of the leaves in my teeth. Much better sugared down!
Uruguay does produce a reasonable amount of local wine, growing it along the coast or on the opposite side of the country. The climate isn’t ideal – it is a little too humid and rainy. Tannat grapes favor these conditions but produce a plain wine. Other grapes like syrah and cabernet sauvignon are grown as well, but also taste fairly one-toned. The wines we favor here are aged in oak, adding some body and making a richer-tasting drink. Our favorites were Tannat Roble made by Traversa and a Marselan made by Bodega J. Chiappella. Thankfully wine is relatively cheap, so we don’t necessarily feel cheated out of more varied flavors.
Of course, there is beer as well – perfect for beach drinking and the hot summers. But even mass-produced brands like Patricia, Pilsen, and Zillertal seemed pricey and tend toward mass-market watery taste. (Some of that payment sadness is us being ruined by incredibly cheap, delicious beer in Poland last year – they set a high bar and woe to all the countries that have come after.) One bright spot was a small handful of craft brews. A trigo beer called Barbara made by Cabesas Bier was my favrite un Uruguay. Kevin also enjoyed finding the first pumpkin/fall spice beer he’d seen that was made outside the US, also by Cabesas – clearly they have hit their brewing stride.
We didn’t come to Uruguay for the food, and that is probably a good thing. I did enjoy the chance to chow down on red meat before heading to other places where it is more expensive. And it was good to try to local wines and mate. But overall, the cuisine didn’t stand out to me (except for morcillas!). I am so looking forward to chocolate and peanut butter again…..
From the title, you might guess that this was my favorite post to write about Chile. You’d be right; but, just to be sure, I put in a lot of research. Chile was high on our list of places to visit in part because of its reputation for wine, especially carménère. Back in Washington state, Kevin fell in love with the grape after discovering it at Northwest Cellars, the nearest winery to our first apartment, which also happens to produce soe of the best wine we’ve ever had.
But in Santiago, we were initially disappointed at what was available. Unlike Buenos Aires, where there is a wine shop (or at least a shop carrying wine) on seemingly every block, Santiago’s offerings were fewer and farther between. Grocery stores had wine, of course, but only bottles from the largest producers and the same brands that are exported around the world. It took heading to malls in Bellavista to find shops selling bottles from smaller-scale wineries. Of course, those were priced higher as well and still had fairly limited selections. Here, you are expected to head out to the winery (and often pay an expensive tasting fee) to sample or purchase small producers’ selections.
Like Argentina, almost no wine is imported from elsewhere in the world, so at least it is easy to be sure you are drinking local. Only the largest grocery stores carry anything other than Chilean wine. But, fortunately, most Chilean wine is pretty tasty.
We went to a wine tasting night we found through Meetup, and had the opportunity to sample many whites (the theme was summer drinking). I was surprised at the quality of the sauvignon blancs and semillons, because I never associated Chile with white wine. It helped that some were late harvests, meaning the sugar content made them taste like dessert. Other dessert wines I purchased at the stores were good too, even the $5 bottles. The most interesting I had during the month was a deep red late harvest syrah that made me want chocolate brownies with intense fervor.
To kick off our last week in town we took a tour from Bodega Wine Tours and visited small vineyards and wineries in the Maipo Valley. Very small: Vino Orgánico Miraflores produces just a few wines and Hoops Winery’s one or two barrels a year comes from vines grown in the front yard of the winemaker’s home. At Hoops, the carménère, petit verdot, syrah, and malbec all get picked and destemmed by hand and fermented in the same vat. The result is a different wine each year, based on what grew well. We sampled a 2010 (the first year they produced wine) and 2014. Both were wonderfully complex.
Outside Santiago, there are wineries and other cropland in almost every direction. Chile is a unique place because it is one of the only spots in the world – and certainly the largest wine region – that is unaffected by phylloxera. The vines here don’t need to be grafted and are often grown with minimal pesticides and chemicals because other pests are also few and far between.
My absolute favorite wine of the entire month was a 2015 Gil Ferrer syrah from Vina Miraflores del Maipo. It reminded me a lot of Washington wine, and tasted like dark fruit. But almost every other wine is delicious as well, we’ve only had a one that wasn’t up to part with the rest. So far Chile’s record is incredible.
And there is beer too! For the most part, large brands like Escudo and Cristal produce the equivalent of a Bud in the US – pale, plain lagers meant for hot afternoons. There was an influx of German immigration in the mid-1800s that kicked off beer making in Chile, but most heavier styles were scrapped in favor of more generic light beers. Fortunately, more craft breweries are starting to take off, though their products tend to be relatively expensive. Kunstmann, Austral, and Kross are the main medium sized producers and you can find their beers in most grocery stores. Smaller breweries like Chester might only sell their beer at a handful of places, and if you aren’t within fifty miles of the brewery, there is no chance of locating it. The smaller the batch, the better the beer tends to be here. Of random note: many places do import beer from the US and Europe, but any seasonal varieties are out of place. If you are brewing winter beer now, people in the southern hemisphere are drinking it when it is 90 degrees outside, which is not quite ideal.
Pisco is the other local alcoholic beverage of choice. Both Chile and Peru claim to have invented this drink and the resulting pisco sour. Apparently the debate gets pretty heated; neither country will allow imports from the other to be labeled ‘pisco,’ instead more generic terms like aguardiente or grape alcohol. Pisco sours in Peru contain an egg white, in Chile they jealously exclude that ingredient. I’m not usually a fan of hard alcohol, but I did like pisco in both countries (see how hard I’m trying to not play favorites). In Chile, we had bottles Mistral and La Serena. La Serena was cheaper and better drinking. I may or may not have added an egg white to the mixture…
In the end, I mostly stuck with wine. That will be a little more difficult in Punta Arenas, since the wine regions are all centered around Santiago, but hopefully enough makes it down to the bottom of the continent to keep us satisfied. If not, I can probably learn to love Austral for a month…