Perambulate Through Prehistory

Discover a few of Malta’s most impressive prehistoric sites & why there are no more Maltese falcons on Malta

One of my more recent obsessions is European neolithic and Bronze Age sites, and Malta has some of the greatest concentrations of these, particularly impressive given that the island’s fairly pint-sized. Malta’s prehistoric sites are justifiably accorded UNESCO World Heritage status. Even if you’re not that interested in prehistory, the level of artistry in the architecture and stone carvings is astounding even by modern standards.

First, to get some context for Malta’s prehistoric sites, visit Valletta’s National Museum of Archaeology, itself housed in a

National Archaeology Museum, Malta
A chubby prehistoric statue

historic building, former HQ for the Knights of Provence. There, you’ll learn theories about how the various sites were constructed. You can also see many of the treasures that have been brought in from the actual temple sites for preservation. The statues and tiny figurines of the “fat ladies” (who may actually not always be women) are astonishing, in that they look like something the modern sculptor, Fernando Botero, may have created, with a little dash of the simple lines of Henry Moore thrown in. When you consider that someone created these thousands of years ago, you have to marvel at our ancestors’ creative genius.

Once you’ve gotten the context, visiting the actual sites is all the more interesting. The Tarxien temples are easy to get to by city bus from Valletta, and fascinating in their own right, but particularly because you’re left to consider them in a seemingly incongruous setting: smack dab in the middle of a busy, modern Valletta suburb. (Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to the nearby Hypogeum because you have to book well in advance. Some tickets are available for next day viewings at the Archaeology Museum or the Fine Arts Museum in Valletta, however, but these are on a very limited first come, first-served basis.)

Temple Guardian Statue, Malta
Ancient statuary – front & rear view

To see temples in a more dramatic coastal setting away from an urban environment, the twin megalithic sites at Hagar Qim and Mnajdra are breathtaking. The visitor center has a cool, informative, very short introductory film replete with smell-o-vision and 4D effects; afterwards, you can walk among the stones, unlike more well-known sites like Stonehenge.

After taking in the temples, the fabulous walking trails here help you discover Maltese flora and fauna. There are lovely vistas of the sea, and the surrounding hills are dotted with ancient-looking stone huts, once commonly used for bird catching.

Though this practice isn’t completely in the past. As you stroll the walking trails here, you’ll probably meet some friendly Maltese men with super cute dogs. Though they’re not supposed to because of EU conservation directives, the men may be scoping out birds to hunt. In fact, an overenthusiastic passion for bird hunting is why you won’t see any Maltese Falcons on Malta. They’re now extinct. Hagar Qim and Mnajdra are still lovely for both nature and prehistory, however, just don’t expect to see a lot of birds.

An Island Time Machine: Malta

With one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals, World Heritage neolithic sites, Knight life galore, and an amazing Carnival, the island of Malta is definitely a European must-see

When I was a kid, like a lot of kids, I went through a knights and castles phase. In one of the more exciting books I read, there were stories of the Knights of St. John, and their island redoubt: Malta. This inspired a life’s dream of visiting one day.

Grand Master's Palace, Valletta
Grand Master’s Palace Corridor

I got to tick this particular life’s dream box when my husband and I were chasing the sun in the midst of the typical grey British winter this year.

The island did not disappoint.

Malta’s fascinating, rich history is readily on display. Like many Mediterranean islands, neolithic tribes, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, crusading knights, and more modern empire builders have all made the island home, each leaving their influences along the way.

Malta’s also a relaxing place to visit, since the people are so chilled out and friendly and because everyone speaks English. The nice thing, however, is that it still feels foreign, since the Maltese speak Malti to one another. A Semitic language, it sounds like Arabic, but is written in Latin script (the only Semitic language that this is true of.) So what seems familiar can suddenly seem, at least to my American ears, very exotic.

Logistically and price point speaking, Malta’s also got quite a few pluses: hassle-free public transit for a car-free holiday, and, because it’s on the package break circuit, air and hotel packages that didn’t break the bank. (You can easily avoid the boozy Brits who just come to party here, however.) Not that you’d totally want to avoid an occasional night out: prices are super reasonable for drinks and generally, dining out, so it’s a good place to have a holiday if you’re on a budget.

Costumed reveler in Valletta's Carnival celebration
Carnival reveler, Valletta

Here are a few of the things you shouldn’t miss if you’re planning your own trip to Malta:

A few planning resources>>

Here are a few of the useful sites I used to plan our trip to Malta.

About Malta: Malta’s very informative official tourist info site is here –

Buses: Our week-long bus past cost only 7 Euros! You can buy that on arrival at the airport or board a bus. More info on the efficient and affordable bus network can be found here –

Air & Hotel Package Deals: BA has a few, but I found the best deal on EasyJet. There are a variety of hotels for a range of budgets, and they also let you know whether a hotel is kid-friendly, etc. You don’t need to buy the add-on airport transfer. You can either take the bus to and from the airport, or a taxi, which is generally only 20 Euros anywhere you go on Malta from the airport.

Marais place to stay near the Place de Vosges

Looking for a good place to stay in the Marais? Check out the Jardins du Marais hotel. Within a short stroll from the lovely Place de Vosges and all the merriment of the Marais, the helpful staff will help you have a great visit to Paris.

Paris hotels can be a bit, well, tricky. A favorite can quickly become a has-been and even a favorite can be too small, too old, or too “European” for some tastes. (Especially American ones.)

Louis XIII in the Place de Vosges
Louis points the way to a good hotel in the Marais

So, while I have a few other standbys for Paris jaunts of all shapes and sizes (and budgets), there’s a nice place in the Marais very near the perfection that is the Place de Vosges, appropriately called The Jardins du Marais.

As is so important in the strollable City of Light, there’s the hotel’s amazing location. While I have a personal connection to the more sedate 7th, the Marais is a center of many things cultural (the fascinating Carnavalet Museum, the newly refurbed and oh-so-popular Picasso Museum) and definitely some great nights out.

With a groovy lobby area and cool courtyard for convening with fellow travellers, the rooms at the Jardin du Marais are unusually spacious for Parisian hotels. (The room I stayed in even had a mini-kitchen.)

And beyond that, there was the welcome. The staff were beyond helpful. From check-in to baggage dude, everyone went out of their way to give you a hand. In great English and multiple languages too, should you not be proficient when you parlez Francais.

I snagged a deal on Orbitz when I stayed, but the hotel also has special offers when you book direct.

Here’s the info if you want to go:
The Jardins du Marais
74, rue Amelot
75011 Paris France

Top Choices in Chinatown

In case you can’t get enough of New Year celebrations or if you just hate New Year’s as a concept altogether, the vastly superior celebration is just around the corner. That’s the Lunar New Year, of course, which is celebrated by the Chinese and many other Asian cultures. Illuminated lanterns. Excellent food. Snappy fireworks. Far fewer hang-ups about what to do on New Year’s Eve. The Lunar New Year is the New Year we should all really get behind.

London's Chinatown gets ready for the Year of the Horse
Festive New Year lanterns in London’s Chinatown

While you may find yourself in or around London’s Chinatown to ring in the Year of the Horse next week, Chinatown’s always a good place to visit for some great food. In fact, unlike other Chinatowns, London’s almost solely features food– nearly every shopfront is a restaurant or some type of food supply emporium. However, the sheer number and variety of choices can overwhelm– particularly if you go with hungry, tired guests from out of town. Don’t give up! Here are three really delicious options that are guaranteed to please picky and adventurous palates alike.

Manchurian Legends is the most exotic of the three, and purportedly, one of the only restaurants in London to specialize in Dongbei cuisine (the type of food common in Northeastern China). Think: amazing handmade dumplings, flavorful grilled meats, hearty stews and some real spice or even weird offal offerings for the adventurous. There’s truly something for everyone. The vegetable dumplings are soft bundles of perfectly cooked and lightly seasoned veggies; little tasty lamb skewers were succulent and savory; the house chicken specialty was a delight with some extra kick in the form of complex layers of real chile heat. (NB: I, like some, like it hot. While Manchurian Legends has many dishes that are not spicy, like the aforementioned dumplings, a man sitting near us was clearly on a first date and began pouring with sweat when he requested something to be “extra spicy.” Don’t say I didn’t warn you if you try and be similarly macho. Sadly, I don’t think our fellow diner had a second date after having to ask for towels from the kitchen to mop himself off with. Lots of towels.) If you’re a culinary adventurer or one of those people who likes to pretend they’re on a reality show, you can also order a few special offal dishes, which is apparently quite the done thing in Manchuria. As for me, I’ll stick with the veggie dumplings, lovingly handmade by chefs in the front window of Manchurian Legends as you walk in.

Yummy scallops at Haozhan
Scallops do the wave at Haozhan


Another favorite is Haozhan, right on Chinatown’s main drag, Gerrard Street. Haozhan does a lot of the cross-cultural classics very respectably. Think: crispy duck, sweet and sour chicken and all those Anglicized or Americanized Chinese dishes that we all love because they’re so amazingly good and comforting. However, as you can see from the picture, Haozhan also pushes the Pan-Asian and modern cuisine boundaries on a few dishes, like this one– a tasty creation of seared scallops and asparagus nestled in a dramatic noodle wave. Haozhan’s menu is fairly vast, so this is a good place to visit when you need to please a group of people with disparate dining interests. And unlike a lot of places that do noodle art and vegetable sculpting, dinner here is really affordable.

Last, but certainly not least, is Mr. Kong, a Chinatown staple for over two decades. With really friendly service and excellent food, it’s easy to see why Mr. Kong seems to have a lot of regular customers. Mr Kong does a lot of the classics really well, but it’s the specials that really shine. On one visit, my husband and I had a crab hot pot that was really amazing, like a Chinese cioppino. Utterly delicious! Mr. Kong is also fairly quiet for a restaurant in Chinatown, which is nice if you’d like to have a conversation with your dining companion(s).

Manchurian Legends, 16 Lisle Street WC2H 7BE

Haozhan, 8 Gerrard Street W1D 5PT

Mr. Kong, 21 Lisle Street WC2H 7BA

So, where did the Wise Men go after?

Happy New Year!

January tends to weigh heavily on the mind, as far as months go. I’m pretty sure that even the Three Wise Men were heading back from Bethlehem thinking, “Now what? Is there anything else to see on the way home?” Or, at least I would have been saying that if I were one of the Magi.

Whether you’re seeking an escape due to the New Year blues or are just cheerily planning your year’s travels, I strongly urge you to consider the world’s Second Cities. My interest isn’t only because I’m originally from the Chicago area– America’s original Second City. While it’s great to throw coins in Rome’s Trevi Fountain or eat sushi at Tokyo’s Tsukiji, sometimes a country’s capital cities can be too crowded, too noisy, and just too overwhelming to really feel like you experienced the place.

While the places I’ve listed below may not technically qualify as their country’s true Second Cities (I think even Chicago is now third behind L.A.), they’re all amazing representations of the best of what their country and/or region has to offer. And yes, you should definitely visit Chicago!

Torre, Bologna, Italia
Street view & blue skies in Bologna

Bologna, Italy – This is the place where Italians go on foodie holidays, which tells you something about the quality of the cuisine. Sometimes known as “Bologna the Red” for its lovely terracotta-hued buildings and its political past, Bologna plays host to the oldest university in the West, a bevy of wonderful shops, a fantastic archaeology museum, cool cafe culture and great night life.

And did I mention the food? Mortadella, tagliatelle, tortellini– just to name a few. Of course, none of these have anything to do with the bastardized cousins you may be familiar with. Rubbery, bland “bologna” cannot be found in Bologna, thank God. Gloopy, non-distinctive “spaghetti bolognese” (or “spag bol” as the Brits call it) is also mercifully non-existent in this amazing, vibrant city. Rome – watch out!  Have a look at what’s on via the informative official visitors site.

Ghent, Belgium – In the interest of full disclosure, I generally have an aversion to Belgium; it has historically been one of my personal Low Countries. In Bruges, I got bed bugs and was accosted by a duo of louche, dwarf swingers. (NB: This happened well before the film, “In Bruges” forever connected the city and a dwarf as a a plot point.) I have also had numerous unpleasant interactions in Brussels. Essentially, I had almost given up on Belgium until I spent two days in Ghent. Like Bologna, Ghent is a historic university town, a status which keeps the beautifully preserved Medieval city from getting too museum-like. Ghent’s got beautiful canals, vibrant street life both day and night, and is peopled by funny, smart, down-to-earth Ghentians. (I’m not sure that this is the accurate name for those from Ghent, but all local people were careful to highlight that they were from Ghent, not from Belgium. Hmmm. Perhaps I’m not alone on this Belgium thing.) It’s a town full of music, culture and several restaurants featuring all-you-can-eat spareribs. For all that’s happening in one of Europe’s most delightful cities, check out Ghent’s robust visitor info.

Kilkenny, Ireland – Nearly 15 years ago, my husband and I got married in Kilkenny, after meeting in a youth

St. Canice's Cathedral - Kilkenny
St. Canice’s – One of Kilkenny’s very beautiful and very old churches

hostel a few years before that. Though this romantic association is admittedly personal, I can assure you that you will make your own pleasant memories when you visit Kilkenny. The fact that many Irish people choose it for their stag weekends, hen parties and other celebrations is a sign that there is extremely good craic to be had here. In addition to some of Ireland’s finest pubs and a Smithwick’s beer factory, Kilkenny also features amazing medieval architecture, a lovely well-restored castle, fine walks in and around the city, and some of the nicest people in Ireland– which is one of the nicest countries on Earth. While I love Dublin, I’d often fly straight into Kilkenny if I could. Kilkenny has a slew of festivals, including a foodie fest and the world’s first (and only?) comedy and economics festival, Kilkenomics, so definitely have a look at the official info to see what’s happening to plan your visit.

Osaka, Japan –  Tokyo is likely the world’s best-run city. It is beautiful, clean, easy to get around and full of people– the largest

Gorilla sign - Osaka
One of the many reasons to go ape for Osaka

metropolitan area in the world, in fact. Where other countries have chaos when 10,000 of their citizens attend a soccer match, Tokyo hums along with millions coursing into, across and out of the city every day. That being said, Tokyo can, at times, be overwhelming. The time you accidentally get on at rush hour and have to get shoved by the gloved train employee. The night you’re in the Golden Gao and realize that not every establishment welcomes “gaijin.” This is when it’s time to leave Tokyo and head straight for Osaka. The good people of Osaka are extremely friendly and the city features amazing food and nightlife, an awesome aquarium, a pretty impressive castle, and Japan’s best baseball team– the Hanshin Tigers.  Fore info on baseball in Osaka and more, have a look at my post on some Japan highlights.