Tag Archives: travel

Walking Malta In A Day: Sites Worth Visiting

Malta is so small, you can walk it from head to toe in a single day. Here are some of the interesting sites you can stop and explore along the way. 

Most of us locals know the islands through our car’s windscreen. Even though distances are short, they’re never short enough, and we drive everywhere. So when I was presented with the challenge of walking across my country, I couldn’t resist. It was a crazy idea, but nonetheless doable, all in a mere 8 hours.

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The route from Għarb (Gozo) to Birżebbugia (Malta), with a ferry in between.

Walking from the western village of Għarb in Gozo to Birżebbugia, the south-east point of Malta, provided an alternative perspective, lots of blisters and a chance to connect with my surroundings on a deeper level; walking across my entire country from point to point was a way to appreciate how diverse and accessible Malta is.

If you have the luxury of replicating this walk, these are some of the sites you should definitely spend more time in:

Island 1: Gozo

  • Time: 2 hours
  • Distance: 13K
  • Terrain: Easy / downhill elevation

 

1. Ta’ Pinu Shrine, Għarb

Ta' Pinu.

Malta’s national shrine attracts pilgrims from all over the world. It is unlike most of the churches you’ll see in Malta and Gozo, which are planted in the heart of the village — Ta’ Pinu stands strikingly at the edge of a cliff, surrounded by the countryside in Għarb. No matter what your faith is, you will be sure to marvel at the sense of serenity this Basilica holds.

2. Victoria, Rabat

Get lost within the maze of the Gozitan capital’s narrow roads and tight alleys until you arrive in Pjazza San Ġorġ. Have a seat at one of the bars and relax over a pint of ice-cold Cisk, before emerging back into the Main Square where the market is usually set up. Across the road, you’ll find the Citadel, a majestic fortress boasting a view of the entire island of Gozo and on a day with good visibility, even Comino and Malta.

3. Mġarr ix-Xini

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Nestled between the villages Sannat and Għajnsielem, the once forgotten bay called Mġarr ix-Xini recently rose to fame after featuring in an Angelina Jolie & Brad Pitt movie titled By the Sea. It is a romantic place, and if you’re not brave enough to have a dip in January, you can go for a lovely hike around the watchtower until you reach Fort Chambray.

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Island 2: Malta

  • Distance: 32K
  • Time: 6hours
  • Terrain: Mainly elevated

 

1. Mellieħa

The Secret Garden.

Perched on top of a hill, the village most frequented during the summer season is renowned among locals and tourists alike for the largest sandy beach in the country, Mellieħa Bay (or as the locals call it, l-Għadira, literally, “the pond”). One of the most beautiful views you can get is from the little park tucked behind the cemetery. From there, you can admire the beach’s turquoise waters, the silhouette of Gozo and the enchanting Red Tower.

2. Manikata

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Malta’s farming hamlet is the country’s main source of genuine local products, such as potatoes, water melon, strawberries, artichoke, honey — depending what’s in season. If you’re interested in hiking, you will definitely appreciate Malta’s rural landscape here. Eventually, you’re bound to come across a small unusual building, inspired by circular stone huts ubiquitous in the region, where farmers store their tools. The building, is actually a chapel dedicated to St Joseph, and was designed by Maltese architect, Richard England.

 

3. Chadwick Lakes

Malta’s only freshwater stream, Chadwick Lakes, is situated between Rabat and Mtarfa and flow all the way to the limits of Mosta. They were built towards the end of the 19th century by a British engineer, Osbert Chadwick, to preserve rainwater and create a niche for biodiversity. Nowadays, the reservoir system doubles as a natural park where locals enjoy walking and trekking during sunny winters. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot tadpoles in the stream!

 

4. Birżebbugia

Located deep in the southeast, Birżebbuġia houses the earliest evidence of human presence on the Maltese Islands. Għar Dalam (meaning ‘dark cave’) contains artefacts dating from as early as 7,400 years, of which experts believe Malta was once connected to continental Europe via land bridge, which broke off during the ice age. History buffs should definitely visit the cave and its adjacent museum.

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Originally appeared on Il-Bizzilla, Air Malta‘s inflight magazine.

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24hrs in Ometepe — Nicaragua’s Volcanic Island Paradise

Floating on the largest freshwater lake in Central America, are two conjoint volcanos forming a tiny island called Ometepe. It offers a remote escape from Nicaragua’s bustling cities, where life is stripped down to its simplest form.

I arrive on a rickety boat from Rivas after sundown. Luckily, I am accompanied by two Spanish-speaking backpackers, the type who easily spark up conversation, and while socialising with a local on the ferry, secure us a place to spend the night.

Click here for the ferry schedule

The three of us squash ourselves and our backpacks into the backseat of The Local’s van, and gaze out in wonder at the vast emptiness. Night falls like a heavy blind and our drive to Merida is illuminated by millions of stars darting across the sky.

Ometepe roads are primitive. There is hardly any fixed source of light or markings on the road, save for the van’s headlamps wresting against the blackness ahead. Locals rattle on their unlit bicycles or scooters, and it’s only a local driver’s intuition that spares their life.

READ Nicaragua Travel Guide

And an hour of ferocious driving along the unpaved trail leads us to our destination. The last two beds available are snatched up by my travel companions, and I agree to spend the night swinging on a giant hammock, hung beneath a bridge by the lake.

With the aid of my iPhone torch, I pull out my baggy grey T-shirt and shorts from the outer compartment of my backpack, create a pillow out of a compact pile of clothes and tuck myself to sleep — feeling one with the elements. I close my eyes to nature’s orchestra: beatboxing toads, hooting birds and the whistling wind.

Colours of dawn wash away the darkness and by 6am, I am awake and feeling energised. Sleeping outside and on a hammock was more comfortable than I imagined — no mosquitos, and the weird noises become part of the soundscape that lull you to sleep.

Wild birds flap their wings on top of my resting spot as I stretch my legs, wipe my eyes open and hop off the hammock to absorb this special moment.

In what was an impulsive act, I splash into the warm and murky waters of Lake Nicaragua, completely alone and without a care in the world. I had never swam in a freshwater lake before and for someone growing up in the Mediterranean, the absence of the distinct taste of salty water against my lips needed getting accustomed to.

The lack of salt makes it harder to stay afloat so I paddle faster, my legs as if on an invisible underwater bicycle steering uphill. Two fishermen silently row their way in to shore gawk at me, making me realise it was naive to be swimming in such a vast lake, without even stopping to consider what could lie beneath.

I wade up to my hammock, towel dry and have breakfast with the other two backpackers — a plate of gallopinto, consisting of red beans, white rice fried cheese and scrambled eggs — providing sufficient nourishment for the day ahead.

My aim was to reach Ojo de Agua, a natural spring pool off San Domingo Bay, which is approximately 12-km away from where I was. Time is arbitrary in Ometepe, and taking the bus on time is a bit of fluke, so I go on foot.

After an hour’s walk in the deserted dusty roads, the sun on my face and the ropes of my drawstring   bag cutting like blades through my shoulders, I spot a hand-painted sign on a wooden plank nailed to a tree saying ‘Juice Naturais’ and followed.

Locals on Ometepe are very business savvy, opening their doors to travellers and providing whatever they can offer, whether it’s a guided tour up a mountain, a hammock to sleep in, or an informal restaurant in their backyard.

A teenage girl takes my order, rushes quickly to her kitchen and switches on some music for ambiance. Ten minutes later, I’m sipping an icy-fresh melon jugo (juice), completely alone beneath the natural shade, entertained by an unobstructed view of the Conception volcano and a reggae version of Adele’s Hello.

It is past 10am. I continue walking towards the ‘city centre’, taking pictures through people’s open farms, plantain fields and oxen ranches of every free-roaming horse, chicken and grouchy pig.

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Wherever I look, there’s something that takes me by surprise. An old bus tyre planted in the ground to signal a bus stop, cows crossing the road unaccompanied, carefree men lolling up and down on their rundown motorcycles.

I knew it would be a long road to the springs. Every time I stop to ask locals for directions, all I get are heads shaking and an arm waving ‘derecho’. I was constantly challenged but I couldn’t care less. I was on a mission. And walking alone makes me happy.

It’s the only way I could be part of the island, to observe how the locals lived, admire the clouds, speak to the horses, meet the cows, spot a family of white-faced monkeys at the top of a tree and discover a souvenir shop tucked at the back of a house from where I stop to buy my (souvenir) Nicaragua T-shirt.

Three hours into the walk, I arrive at my destination feeling deeply underwhelmed and in an almost culture shock. Since everything is so raw in Nicaragua, the natural springs in my imagination took the shape of literally a hole in the ground I’d take a refreshing dip in.

My imagination was a bit off: A sparkling pay-to-enter resort, filled to the brim with deckchairs lined with Italian, French and English-speaking tourists, sipping rum out of a coconut. I discover the Ojo de Agua is a natural spring pool filled with crystal clear water from an underground river that comes from volcano Maderas.

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The Ojo de Agua swimming hole.

The swimming hole is actually rimmed with cement and forms two separate swimming areas, where the water gets renewed constantly by the spring that emerges from the bottom of the upper pool. Overall I wasn’t really amused by the ‘clarity’ and ‘purity’ of the water.  I spend two hours there relaxing, to get my walk’s worth.

By 2pm I start feeling hungry, so I pack my things, walk to the main road and thumb for a lift. A couple of minutes later, I’m sat at the back of a local’s scooter to San Domingo, around 3km away. I sit straight, hold on for dear life and cough ‘aqui’ for him to stop.

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Lunch at Santo Domingo, the only sand beach on the island. 

He drops me off right outside this vegetarian eatery called ‘Natural’, where I treat myself to some Toña — the crisp local beer — and a plate of stir-fry with veg with pineapple drizzled in soy-sauce. Lunch is served with a spectacular backdrop of Maderas volcano, with horses grazing on the beach.

I couldn’t muster the energy to walk back. So I stop to gather some melons and bananas for dinner and hitch a ride to Merida. I arrive back to base a little before at 6pm. The sun transforms into a crimson ball as it slowly starts to inch closer and closer towards the horizon, growing larger and larger. The tide is low and I wade into the lake, ankle deep, to savour the last minutes of the day.

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Sunset view from Los Chokoyos, Merida. 
  • Stay: Los Chokoyos, Merida
  • Eat: Natural, a vegetarian restaurant at the edge of the sandy beach in Santo Domingo, on the eastern side of the island, enjoying a view of the smaller volcano, Maderas.
  • Hike: Maderas Volcano (smaller of the two, elevation of 1,394 m, famous for its lake crater at the top)

Rafting In The World’s Coldest River

Bosnia Herzegovina is one of Europe’s most underrated travel destinations for outdoor lovers. Christine Spiteri uncovers the equally enchanting and haunting environment that surrounds River Neretva, as it carries her beyond her comfort-zone in an unforgettable 24km rafting adventure.

If it were for me, river rafting would not have featured in the itinerary. Our Balkan road trip was already a whirlwind of adventure, featuring overnight cross-border train and bus journeys, trudging through the rain looking for a hostel which didn’t exist, and kayaking in the middle of a bay filled with jelly-fish the size of a human head: all I wanted to do on our last Monday abroad, was to sit in a quiet café and while away the time with a good book.

“I’ll get seasick,” was my sorry excuse. But I wasn’t travelling alone, and had to compromise.

And so, beneath patched up skies and a typical September drizzle, we rolled our way from Mostar to Konjic in a rented car. The early-morning sky started to open up as we drove out of the battered city and onto the spectacular highway. A chain of misty mountains, covered by tall trees huddled closely together, as if to protect the snoozing Neretva River, unfolded before us. The river, still like glass, was a mysterious alpine greenish-blue and a part of me, although hesitant, romanticised the idea of being on it soon.

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Driving from Mostar to Konjic on an early Monday morning. 

 

Ner Etwa — “Flowing Divinity” — is what the Celts called her, and where the name ‘Neretva’ originally derives. The clear river is frigid all year round and twists its way down the Dinaric Alps for 210 km, flowing through Croatia for another 20km before finally meeting the Adriatic Sea. Our rafting trek was scheduled to be 24 kilometers long which, translated into hours, tallies up to an approximate half-a-day on water.

The packaged tour we booked catered for breakfast, lunch and also included transport to and from Konjic. We were escorted down to Bukovica, our starting point, in a Rafting for You branded van with the entire crew: a British couple and a professional Skipper, all clad in full-body wetsuits, boots, bright-yellow helmets and red life-vests.

Upon arrival, our Skipper threw the raft into the calm river and gave us a quick pep talk. We were instructed to sit in pairs on each edge, with our backs straight and feet securely fastened. His instructions were simple: “When I say ‘right’, you paddle; when I say ‘left’, you paddle; when I say ‘together’, all paddle!” And in the unlikelihood of falling off, “don’t panic – don’t try to swim, your vest will float. Any questions? Off we go!”

The river carried us gently downstream, along steep gorges, astonishing slopes and untouched scenery, the silence interspersed through the sound of the rapids. Light diffused naturally through the trees, reflecting the distinctive green that is so characteristic of the region; an ethereal layer of fog making it equally haunting and charming. I paddled absent-mindedly, taking it all in.

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River Neretva, “Flowing Divinity”

Rafting on Neretva was surprisingly relaxing. It didn’t require the same amount of upper-body strength and coordination in comparison to kayaking, as I initially thought. Our Skipper passed round plastic cups for us to scoop up and drink the water.

“River water, Class 1 purity,” he said. “Very cold, often 7 to 12 degrees in the summer months.” 

We stopped at a pebbly beach and while our Skipper fired up the BBQ, we followed his advice to ‘walk on water’ and hike into the canyon, until we found a bridge.

“Don’t worry, Bosnian Bear lives high up in the forest, not down here.”

Waist deep, we waded through the nippy waters. It was hard to swim because the water is so fresh, and difficult to walk because pebbles are so slippery. But trampling down the path of uncertainty, at times against a current, proved exciting. I wasn’t nervous any longer, I stopped overthinking and just let go.

After almost half an hour and no sign of the bridge, we followed the chain of white smoke back to the pebbly beach. Our ćevapi were ready to be served. These minced-lamb sausages, tucked inside pockets of thin and fluffy lepinja (Bosnian bread), are so typical in the Balkans, we’ve eaten them almost everyday. But these were by far the juiciest. 

Replenished, we hopped back into our raft, ready to take on the ‘rapids’ — instances where the river moved faster down mini-waterfalls, or adrenalin-packed descents. I waited for our Skipper’s instructions: “Right, paddle!” at which point we gave our all, until the current picked up and we were obliged to pull our oars out of the water and enjoy the ride. It felt like being on a rollercoaster with no seatbelt on. But after feeling the momentary thrill of surviving my first rapid, I couldn’t wait to experience the next.

In between the rapids, we floated deeper and deeper through the steep gorges, forests lined up high on top. We even stopped at a couple of jumping spots, but the cold waters numbed my ability to feel anything at all, so I sat at the edge of the crag, watching the others enviously. 

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The crew towards the end of its journey. Image: Sanel Koric (neretvarafting.com)

Skipping the weekend crowds meant we had the river all to ourself. The five of us had the luxury of sitting together, but alone, cocooned in our own thoughts, savouring the natural beauty. Upon arriving nearer to civilisation, the rubbish picked up and the purest water became undrinkable.

Towards the end of our journey, my hands were numb, toes cold and teeth chattering — I was rowing for the sake of keeping warm. We had spent almost 6 hours on water and was more than relieved to dive into my thermal socks and fleece zip-up upon reaching land. Despite freezing in the world’s coldest river, this experience shook me out of my comfort-zone and exposed me to one of Europe’s best-kept secrets, without getting seasick.

Driving around the Iceland Ring Road in December

Visiting Iceland in December and taking on the Ring Road has its challenges: four hours of daylight and increased chances of encountering deadly snow blizzards and forceful winds. 

However, the plus side of visiting during low-season is respite from the crowds, cheaper prices in accommodation and car rental. 

Here’s how we covered 1,400km in eight days:

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Day 1: Keflavík to Reykjavík

Total distance: 49km

We flew easyJet via London and landed in Keflavík airport a few minutes after 10.30 on a foggy Sunday morning. We got the keys to our white VW Polo and headed off to our first destination: Reykjavík.

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We drove straight into the oldest commercial streets in town, Laugavegur. Parking is free on Sundays.

The street is lined with typical Iceland shops selling typical Icelandic stuff (such as the iconic Icelandic Sweaters – Lopapeysa – made from Icelandic sheep’s wool and sold complete with a signed hand-written note from the maker), quaint cafés, street art and colourful houses.

Icelanders’ timber dwellings are equipped for their climate, coated in a curvy outer layer of corrugated steel. Houses are kept warm using geothermal energy, and all their resources are 100 per cent renewable.

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Walking around in the faint glow of a typical Icelandic morning in 8 degrees (heatwave by Icelandic winter standards), we observed women in their empty shops knitting away at the counter, a handful of Asian tourists posing in front of their selfie-sticks and young Icelandic couples calmly push their babies in buggies.

But most notable of all was how quiet the most vibrant street in the capital was. It felt almost as though silence was a presence that filled the streets of Reykjavík, such that one is almost obliged to break into a whisper when speaking.

Svarta Kaffið: Home-made bread-bowl of reindeer soup.

For lunch, we sat ourselves at the last vacant table of a family-owned café, Svarta Kaffið. There was no menu, but a choice of either vegetarian soup or reindeer home-made soup. We opted for the latter. It was the warmest welcome one could ever receive in a country, taking the shape of a cosy bread bowl of reindeer soup (1850 KR).

  • Sleep: Red Door Hostel (basic amenities, round the corner from Laugavegur)
  • Eat: Reindeer Soup from Svarta Kaffið (1850 KR) and try a hot dog (860 ISK) from Bæjarins beztu, Iceland’sand now possibly the world’smost famous hot dog stand.
  • Shop: Bónus (Iceland’s answer to LIDL)

Day 2: Reykjavík to Vík—City Walk & Golden Circle

Total Distance: 218km

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The next morning, we went on a City Walk with our Icelandic guide, Martin, and a sizeable group of tourists from all around the world.

Side note: The walking tour is free, but donations are encouraged. 

Our comprehensive walkabout gave insight into the Icelandic culture and background stories of important sites. Our tour was concluded at around 2pm, with this sunset.

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We then checked-out of our hostel, booked the last room in Vík and start our anti-clockwise journey round the Icelandic ring-road (or Route One), taking on the popular tourist route in the last hour of daylight.

Around the Golden Circle, we visited Þingvellir National Park (which lies in a rift valley marking the boundary between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plate), witnessed a gushing geyser hurl boiling water up to 70 metres in the air and felt the cold spray of the roaring Gullfoss waterfalls before darkness fell at 4pm.

Side note: If you’re travelling in winter, plan days well and research times the sunrises and sets before heading out to explore. Unfortunately, most of the sites along the Ring Road couldn’t be appreciated due to the lack of daylight. 

  • Sleep: Puffin Hostel (Vík)
  • Do: Reykjavík City Walk – Professional local guides share curious facts about the city, its history and Icelandic culture. Requires booking via website.
  • Do: Golden Circle Tour – This is pretty doable for independent travellers renting their own car. Main attractions are all located on one paved road and highly accessible from Reykjavík.

Day 3: Vík to HöfnHikes, Glacier Lakes & Langoustine Soup

Distance: 272km

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We woke up in the creaky attic of The Puffin Hostel, a mere 10-minute walk from the Black Beach in Vík. It was already 10 in the morning, but the lack of light made it feel as though it were still 10 in the evening.

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After having a quick breakfast, covered ourselves in thermals and stuffed the rest of our belongings into our backpacks, we embarked on a mini-hike to explore the southern village of only 300 inhabitants.

Our exploration was short-lived. From the ravenous waves of the deserted Black Beach, we ended up trudging up a very steep hill in an icy drizzle that was so cold, it felt like needle darts against our cheeks. And when we almost reached a layer of thin clouds, we headed back to the warmth and shelter of our car.

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On the remote footpath behind the Vík church.

Our eastward drive towards Höfn (literally: harbour), was probably the most spectacular part of the entire ring road  lined with majestic snowcapped mountains and a luminous icy-blue lake huddled between them.

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The light was very faint by the time we arrived at Jökulsárlón lake. At 4.30pm, clouds hung low, allowing the light to diffuse magically, creating a piercing blue contrast with the grey.

Giant icebergs floated silently and at a glacial pace in the glass-like lake, as if in deep sleepI felt as though I had to tiptoe along the promenade to avoid waking them up.

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That evening, we treated ourselves to a lovely meal at Pakkhusas recommended by the kind lady upon checkin-in at the Höfn Hostel.

Höfn is known as the Langoustine Capital of Iceland, and we had the privilege of sitting by the window overlooking the very boat that goes out in the morning to catch the ten-legged shellfish in our humarsupa.

The home-grown duck breast and lamb shanks that came later were so tender, you could cut them with a spoon.

Even spreading plain butter on bread was an event at the table. Smjör Butter is so fluffy, it tasted like clouds on freshly warm bread! 

  • Sleep: Höfn Hostel (Höfn)
  • Eat: Pukkhus (Höfn)
  • Shop: Nettó Supermarket (Höfn)
  • Do: Walk along the Black Beach (Vík) & Meditate in front of Jökulsárlón Lake (Ring Road)

Day 4: Höfn to Akureyri — The Mammoth Journey

Distance: 451km

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The most perilous part of the journey.

During our trip, we never had any hostels booked or fixed itinerary to follow. Stable internet connections and the flexibility of booking.com made it possible for us to plan according to circumstance.

There was nowhere to spend the night between the two major towns of Höfn and Akureyri, so we were obliged to embark on a mammoth journey that saw us cut across half the island.

Google Maps predicted it would take us 6 hours to reach north. So before hitting the road, we stopped at Nettó Supermarket to stock up on suppliesmost importantly, the velvety protein-rich Icelandic yoghurt, Skyrwhich we kept naturally refrigerated in a cardboard box at the back of our car.

Side note: Expensive food and drinks was a recurring theme in our Icelandic experience. An average sit-down meal for two (incl. an alcoholic beverage, such as beer or wine) could easily tally up to €100. And to overcome the challenge, we compensated by cooking our own meals or stopping for an Icelandic hot dog (€6.50) at gas stations. Water is free in Iceland, and among the purest you’ll ever drink. We kept an empty bottle handy and often stopped to refill from fresh-water streams along the Ring Road. 

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This was by far, the most perilous part of our journey. We took on gravel roads (bear in mind, our vehicle was a modest VW Polo, and not a 4×4), gushing rain bursts and misty mountain roads covered in a carpet of thin ice.

At a point it was so dark and foggy, it wouldn’t have made a difference if we drove with our eyes closed. We had no idea what lay ahead of us.

Side note: In our attempt to reach our first pit-stop in Egilsstaðir, our sat-nav advised us to drive up the shorter inner-route via Oxi, but common sense prevailed, and we stuck to the Ring Road, which wasn’t any less adventurous but safer nonetheless. 

Night began to fall, outside temperatures started to drop, and the visibility became worse. I had to lower the volume of the radio which by then had become distracting, and could hear the car tyres crunching against the icy road paving, as it abruptly changed to gravel and slowly started to incline.

Our wipers were swishing to and fro, headlamps blaring. We were literally driving up a mountain, the fog becoming thicker and heavier as we ascended deeper into the clouds. At a point, the visibility was so dense we couldn’t see a metre ahead of us.

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En route: Driving to Akureyri via Egilsstaði, the most remote part of the Ring Road.

Fingers curled tightly round the wheel, our eyes both wide as we both tried to make out this surreal experience. All I could imagine was what would become of us if we missed a sharp turn and tumbled off the crumbling edges into nothing.

Icelandic roads are totally isolated, unlit and unbarred. Our fog lights couldn’t keep up. We rolled the windows down, leaned our heads out into the arctic air hearing echoes of our car’s engine as it roared into second gear, pushing us higher and higher in a constant zig-zag of blind-corners on the narrow road.

We eventually peaked at almost 500 metres before the gravel turned into tarmac again, securing the tyre’s grip. The path took us lower and lower and we started to see again.

Click here for the official Icelandic road safety guides.

  • Highway Emergency: 112
  • Road conditions: +354 563-1500
  • Search and Rescue: +354 570-5900

We had been driving for hours, bend after bend, and still the amount of kilometres on our sat-nav seemed to remain unchanged. Mobile service was still limited and never a soul in sight.

I had heard stories of how you could drive for hours in Iceland and never encounter any cars or people – but you have to experience it to actually understand what it means.

Even though sitting the entire time, driving is mentally draining, let alone in those chaotic conditions. It was almost 8pm by the time we started to see a faint flicker of golden lights, like candles, on the black horizon. And it was such a wild relief.

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Akureyri on the horizon: The last part of the 6 hour journey.

Day 5: AkureyriVisual diary

Distance covered: 0km

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Early morning in Iceland’s fishing centre.
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Midday in Akureyri.
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Street Art in Akureyri.
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Lamb Burger and sweet potato fries from Hamborgarafabrikkan.

  • Sleep: Our Guesthouse (Akureyri)
  • Eat: Lamb Burger at Hamborgarafabrikkan
  • Drink: For those who like to tipple, Iceland may not be your favourite destination. Beer prices average at €8 per pint. However, there is a way around it: Happy Hour. While in Akureyri, indulge in beer for half the price during Backpackers Hostel‘s famous Happy Hour. (Try: Brennivín—Iceland’s signature liqueur (€13) & Einstök—White Ale Beer (€8)).

Day 6: Akureyri to Fossatún—Northern Lights Sighting

Distance: 316km

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After approximately an hour sliding across pot-holed roads, crawling over intimidating single-lane bridge and an unscheduled meeting with the Icelandic horses, we checked into Fossatún at 03.00pm sharp on Friday.

It was literally in the middle of nowhere, just on the top of a waterfall. The grounds are run by a lovely couple who are acclaimed children’s authors, famous for their folk stories about trolls, which are inspired by the hiking trails around the grounds themselves.

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As we were given the key to our sizeable pod, and charged an extra €11 each for a pillow and a duvet, owner Steiner Berg said it was highly probable we would encounter the northern lights that night.

Download your Aurora Forecast app here.

They usually come out on clear nights in winter (September to mid-April) and visible in places away from light pollution, peaking between 11.00pm to 2.00am. 

At 10.00pm, with the clouds swept away and the northern star shining brightly for the first time since we landed in Iceland, we set out for a little hike away from the camping grounds to experience the enchanting Icelandic nightlife.

Would we hear the northern lights approaching? Would we actually feel them sweep through the skies? It was an inconceivable notion for us, so we stood there as though we were little children waiting for Christmas.

Read: In pursuit of the Northern Lights

After almost an hour and a half standing there, looking up, toes completely frozen, we witnessed the first signs of the northern lights. 

Completely isolated from everything, the raw skies opened up to a pathway of shimmering emerald particles, dancing gracefully through the darkness. 

  • Sleep: Fossatún Camping Pods (linen pack not included)
  • Eat: The Settlement Centre Restaurant in one of the oldest houses of Borgarnes
  • Drink: Grýla beer (made from glacial waters, sold only here)

Day 7: Fossatún to Reykjavík 

Distance: 99km

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The last hurdle!

The next morning, we headed west along the coast towards Reykjavík. For the first time we could see the sun setting over the horizon, staining the pale blue sky with pretty pink and orange tints, as though a celebration for completing our road trip.

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Conclusion: Is it worth visiting Iceland in winter?

Visiting Iceland in winter isn’t for the faint-hearted. Fortunately, we were there during a ‘heat-wave’ so the temperatures and weather conditions were much better than expected.

However, it was a constant race to pack as much into our itinerary, given the limited amount of daylight we had. Plus, most of the country is hibernating: there’s no whale-watching, no puffins, no chances of camping outdoors and could be too cold or dark for long treks.

Having said that, winter in Iceland means freedom and the flexibility. You can book a room for the night a couple of hours before your visit, eat at restaurants without having to wait or making a reservation, and of course, the chance to encounter the northern lights in their full glory.

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In pursuit of the Northern Lights

We ventured to Iceland on a whim. All it took to convince us were a couple of ill-referenced blog posts illustrated with a collage of pretty pictures. It was only weeks later, when our Lonely Planet guide arrived, that the reality of what we were about to experience on the fringes of the Arctic, in December, started to seep in: four hours of daylight and a probability of driving through deadly snow blizzards. But at least we had greater chances of encountering the rare and unpredictable Northern Lights.

My travel buddy and I are the adventurous type who travel on a budget, with no more than 10kg strapped to our backs while sleeping in stuffy hostel dorms. The only thing we had booked prior to landing was a rental car, a place to sleep on our first night, and a return flight six days later – what happened in between was basically us winging it. So as you can imagine, our pursuit of the Northern Lights was as unpredictable as their actual sighting.

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We drove counter-clockwise across the empty and secluded Icelandic ring road in our modest VW Polo. Even though the ring road is considered as the main road round the entire island, where goods are transported from one remote town to another, what struck me most was how you could drive for hours, wherein the only signs of life were wild Icelandic horses and grazing sheep.

Bend after bend on Route 1, a procession of snow-capped mountains would morph into jagged black rocks covered in patches of green moss. It was so unreal that, at times, we were obliged to roll down the windows, let the Arctic air in and lean our head out to be part of the view rather than a mere spectator.

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Don’t call the Icelandic horses, ‘ponies’

Driving in Iceland made me think about how architecture shapes not only spaces, but also our minds. As humans we’ve evolved so much since our hunter-gatherer days in the savannah that looking into a screen feels more real to me than being out in the wild. It took a while to get used to the untouched landscape that panned out before us, and as clichéd as it may sound, the majestic views were often perceived like a movie-set or a painting.

It was the perfect mental detox, for I could be alone with my thoughts and, as we saw the authentic landscape unfold through our windscreen, I questioned what Malta would look like if it weren’t so heavily built up.

The route from Keflavík International Airport to Reykjavík transported me back to my childhood in Naxxar, treading through ix-xagħri in my denim dungarees and steering my bright pink bicycle across fields that are now mega-supermarkets and concrete blocks of houses.

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The Icelandic Ring-Road

In fact, it isn’t a country you’d visit for its bustling city life or architectural landmarks. As we hopped from one town to another, manoeuvring through potholed gravel roads and single-lane timber bridges, hoping to stumble upon ideal conditions for Aurora sightings, we would stop to stretch our legs and walk along the most surreal natural wonders.

Fortunately, we were in Iceland during a ‘heatwave’, when thermometers stood at an average of eight degrees Celsius, which wasn’t as cold as we had predicted. This meant there was barely any ice on the majority of the ring road, making it easier for us to explore independently.

Around the Golden Circle, a few kilometres outside Reykjavík, we witnessed a gushing geyser hurl boiling water up to 70 metres in the air, visited the roaring Gullfoss waterfalls and the bubbling geothermal pools nearby. My favourite part of the journey was when we meditated in front of the famous Jökulsárlón, the glacial lake in the southeast.

Days are short and nights are long there in winter. The sun hovers on the horizon, making the panoramic views a photographer’s paradise. We arrived at the edge of Vatnajökull National Park late in the afternoon, and clouds hung low. Most of the Asian tourists were making their way to the parking area, where engines of big white coaches were humming, ready to whisk them away, giving us the privilege of exploring the lake in solitude.

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Jökulsárlón is the deepest lake in Iceland and one of the country’s prominent natural wonders.

Everything was at a metaphorical glacial pace, almost at a standstill, distinct echoes of the ice breaking off at a distance. The light catching the ice that crashed off the glacier during its final journey into the Atlantic reflected a luminous blue on to the still water, like a mirror.

In fact, I found the lagoon to be more magical than the overrated Northern Lights. We had been tailing after them for almost five nights, constantly monitoring the Aurora forecast and, on a clear Friday night in the remoteness beyond Borgarnes town, our chances looked promising.

The sky was clear, moon shining brightly. Everything seemed perfect, except that we were both freezing. I, in particular, was getting impatient. Teeth-chattering and arms crossed, we stood there in complete darkness, waiting for the Aurora to emerge. I remember that by midnight, all the thermal and fleecy underlayers weren’t enough to keep us warm.

We had read how the lights were formed when the Earth’s magnetic field drew the sun’s flares towards the North Pole. Albeit special, it was an underwhelming experience, possibly because the photos I had seen online had raised my expectations. The Aurora visible to the naked eye was a thread of faint emerald green specs, shimmering across the sky. But on camera, the very same vision appeared to be much brighter and definitely more spectacular. Perhaps the ones we saw weren’t strong enough, we remarked the next day.

Actually, the photo published has a story behind it. We were convinced we were alone on top of the little hill at the Fossatún camping grounds. But just a couple of minutes after witnessing the lights, a faint flashlight approached us.

It was an Asian man with half his face concealed in a black bala­c­lava, carrying a DLSR on a tripod. He showed us a remarkable image of the same Northern Lights we had just witnessed –  which on the screen of his camera seemed much more luminous – and, in the bottom left corner, a silhouette of two people: “Iz you!” he said enthusiastically.

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And that experience brought our road trip to full circle, flying back home with our backpacks laden with more memories than dirty laundry. Indeed, travelling to the fringes of the Arctic in December was a bold idea, but it was what made it special. Challenged by treacherous mountain roads, lack of daylight and unpredictable weather, our quest to drive around Europe’s most sparsely populated country was an eye-opening experience, realising there’s so much more to Iceland than the Northern Lights.

Originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta. 

Are smartphones redefining our sense of ‘home’ and belonging?

Whether it’s for work, study or leisure, it has become fairly common for twenty-somethings to pack their suitcases and jet off to travel the world.

What could have once been a unique experience in terms of travelling alone and to experience one’s culture anew, has now become somewhat of a lived dichotomy between being home and away through the marked use of technology.

In the pre-networked days, to travel alone meant leaving your whole world behind you to teeter into unknown cultural terrains. The only news from home would be through snail mail or the monthly (expensive) phone call.

Nowadays, the Internet holds our world together in a network infrastructure, and wireless Internet devices, make our networks portable. What’s more is that online communication (such as e-mail or Skype) is free and instant, championing both constraints of these classic communication methods. Therefore, tethered, we carry a sense of ‘home’ with us, through our mobile Internet devices.

During my solo travels in Asia and continental Europe, the smartphone was my Swiss Army knife of sociality since it carried my physically scattered social networks intact. It offered an instant portal to people, news and memes that kept me up to date with the rhythm of life in Malta. As heavenly as it might read on paper, in practice, it proved to create somewhat of an inner-conflict.

In a sense, I was in-between worlds, because my best-friends weren’t necessarily in the city I was nor in Malta – but on the Internet.

For instance: while I rattled my bicycle to and from the library, in a quaint cobble-stoned city in the Netherlands, one of my best-friends attended pub-quizzes behind the York Minster after lectures, while another boiled haggis for occasional Sunday lunches in Glasgow. The three of us Maltese ventured alone, yet social networking apps such as Facebook messenger or WhatsApp allowed us to remain pretty much together.

Irrespective of where our loved ones are, the idea of here and there is somehow shattered through this newly acquired networked intimacy. The phone has facilitated communication with all our friends, irrespective of where they are, altering our perception of time and space; it has come to represent a ‘mobile home’.

My German friend Saba once told me, “I moved from Germany four years ago, I went to Botswana, I went to Luxemburg, to France. I always took my friends with me, through my smartphone. That’s how I felt. Now I can talk to my friends instantly through my phone.”

Like Saba, my friends travelled with me from the Philippines, to Italy, to Belgium and to the Netherlands thanks to the Internet, and more intimately via Skype.

Video-conferencing (like Skype or FaceTime), is a fairly new and very common means of maintaining close contact with those that matter most. The quality of the call makes up for physical meetings, when these are not possible. While living in the Netherlands, my Polish housemate used to Skype with his mother in Warsaw almost every evening, “I feel that we are near each other during the conversation,” he used to tell me.

Our brains seem to record so-called ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ events so similarly that modern technologies conspire to blur these realms as well. As a matter of fact, we code face-to-face and online experiences similarly, often with equal realness. One may notice this in everyday language, when we speak of online encounters as if they were real: How is Sarah doing? Fine, I guess. I spoke to her on WhatsApp. Did you meet her new boyfriend? Yes, I saw them together on Facebook.

The sense of visual immediacy experienced via video-conferencing and modern social networking creates a simulation of presence and intimacy. Such that, even when people are physically distant, social networks could act as a connective tissue, coordinating and synchronising conversations with friends who are scattered across the world that would otherwise dissolve into silence.

Nonetheless, these mediated communication platforms do not merely substitute face-to-face interaction, but constitute a new kind of presence.

The Internet and smartphone could be used to either enhance a sense of belonging to the place where one is physically present, or it could alienate the individual from fully experiencing the actual place, culture and surroundings.

From my experience, technology compensatesfor rarity of physical encounters, but doesn’t replace them. Even though the Internet eliminates feelings of distance, the sense of presence and level of intimacy is only short-lived. At the end of the day, we all need to live certain aspects of our lives together with the people that we love most, and cannot be replaced through a screen.

Before the emergence of online social networking, communities were formed around a fixed geographical space and therefore led to a tangible concept of what it means to belong and feel at home within a given space.

Now the Internet beckons us to ‘come together’ across a medium, suggesting that we can feel and experience home, and belong somewhere that is not necessarily the same place we are physically bound to.

Living in a network society, it has become easier for me to define home in terms of people who are scattered, than a physical town or city. To the upcoming generation, our sense of belonging need not necessarily be tied down to residential geography but a new, emotional geography.

As seen in the December 2013 issue of The Sunday Circle, Malta’s leading culture and lifestyle magazine.

Disconnect to Reconnect?

A couple of months ago, I travelled to Alsace and stopped for one night in Paris.

I was staying at a youth hostel, and before I dozed off, I overheard an Australian in my dorm whisper, “Hey, there’s no wi-fi!” His friend replied, “Dude, you’re in Paris. Why the hell do you need wi-fi?”

And I thought about how two good friends backpacking across Europe and savouring its scenery, history and culture, still felt the need to be connected elsewhere.

Somewhere in the corners of the Australian backpacker’s mind hung the potential for a different connection and the looming fear that he was missing out on something that was happening elsewhere; something that he would never know unless he logged on.

With smartphones connecting us to the internet directly from our pockets, we now have the ability to span distances – the potential of acquiring a different connection within a pinch and a tap on a small screen is closing down the borders between virtual and physical space.

Social media provides us with a platform through which we can share content at no cost, to a boundless audience.

For instance, I wake up to see pictures of what my friends in Asia are having for breakfast, or what another friend bought while shopping in Paris or London – all this in real-time even though physically we’re in different time-zones.

Nonetheless, our perceived level of interconnectedness is only psychological.

What we are inherently creating via social media is what blogger Nicholas Scalice called the “Biggest, most engaging conversation in the history of human communication.” Social media has not opened a window but a horizon for self-disclosure. But what exactly are we getting out of sharing ourselves online?

By nature, we cannot help but share our subjective take on things, no matter who is listening. Statistics show that 40 per cent of our conversations are about the self, and the popularity of social media might be related to our primal urge of talking about ourselves.

In fact, recent neuroscientific research demonstrates that acts of self-disclosure were accompanied by spurts of heightened activity in brain regions, belonging to the meso-limbic dopamine system, which is associated with the sense of reward and satisfaction we also obtain from food, money or sex. Thus, the brain is positively reinforced and that is why we find talking about ourselves so enjoyable.

The habit of online self-disclosure is not necessarily taken up by people who are bored or in need of company. A survey conducted by T-Mobile in the UK has shown that people are sharing their lives online even while on holiday. I would think that people travel to get away from the stresses and routines of home, and yet 60 per cent of Britons admittedly log on to Facebook or Twitter while on holiday, specifically to boast about what they are up to.

Smoasters (neologism: social media + boasters), was coined to refer to people who use social media to talk with excessive pride and self-satisfaction about their achievements, possessions or abilities.

Yet updating others while on holiday is not a new trend. Take the early 14th century Italian poet Petrarch, for instance. He documented his ascent to Mt Ventoux in France, describing the journey to the summit and the views over the Rhone to the bay of Marseilles.

It could be argued that if the same poet had to climb the same mountain today, he too would tweet verses about it. Of course: But would his subjective experience of the ascent be the same, or would it be existentially different?

Petrarch had the luxury of being alone, to process and reflect about his experience without being interrupted by other peoples’ updates rolling in, on his Newsfeed. Sometimes, I feel that we may be losing the beauty of the “now” because we are constantly pining for a different connection, possibly triggered by the fear of missing out.

Nobody can wait anymore, not because we can’t, but because we don’t have to.

Then again, new technology always sparks up some sort of controversy, possibly instilled by an intrinsic fear churned by our ignorance or misunderstanding of it. Nonetheless, we have always adapted it to our needs.

Sherry Turkle wrote that our relationship with technology is still in its infancy and evolving gradually.

Moreover, Howard Rheingold, in his recent publication Net Smart, encourages us to continue growing in this symbiotic relationship by learning to use media intelligently, humanely and mindfully.

Originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta on August 26, 2012.