San Marino: tiny post about my super short visit to the mini-country.

Now that am back home in Canada, I will admit that I want to finish all my blog posts related to my nearly eight months journey, and move on with planning my upcoming road trip (and doing my taxes!). So here is a very short post about the last country I visited, tiny San Marino. San Marino bills itself as the oldest republic in the World. I am not so sure what the Athenians would say about that, but if they mean “oldest republic still existing in its same form”, than I guess they are correct. The country was founded in 301, by a Christian stonecutter fleeing persecution from Emperor Diocletian.

Most of the country comprises little industrial towns which apparently have very little interest for tourists. I bought that and did not check myself. The capital, also called City of San Marino, is an ancient fortified city known for its three towers, incorporated in the country coat of arms. This is the first tower, built around 1320. If you imagine yourself as an attacker with 14th Century technology, you can see why taking it would not be so easy.

Tower 2, built around 1253 would not be much easier.

When you climb on the towers and look down, you understand that the enemy would have a hard time catching the defenders by surprise.

And if you look at the size of the cars in the lower left of this picture, you see that the place’s natural geography is most certainly in the defender’s advantage. Continue reading

Malta, a beautiful country where you can go to… not dive.

Malta has a 7,000 year old history of human habitation. It has been occupied by the Phoenicians, the Roman Empire, the Arabs, the French, the Brits and others. But you can read all that on Wikipedia.

What you may not know is that in Malta, the Dollar Stores sell wine! To be honest, they used to be Lira Stores and, since 2008, they are 2 euro stores, but still. I’m really not looking forward to the next time I have to buy a bottle of garbage wine for $12 in Canada.

Another important fact you don’t know about Malta is that the glass blowers are not all ugly. I’ve seen glass blowers in a few countries, and let’s just say it’s not a profession that seems to attract the best looking men.

But incredibly in Malta, based on an exhaustive review I conducted, exactly 20% of glass blowers are beautiful blond women! Fake blond, but still.

And those two important facts are all I learned about Malta. However, in order to prove I’ve actually been there, here’s a few pictures of churches.

The Mosta dome, the 3rd largest unsupported dome in Europe.  Continue reading

A modest car may cost over $100,000 in Singapore, but in Monaco, a parking spot costs half a million!

I have a fascination for micro-countries and so far, I have never been disappointed when I visited one. Actually, as I am writing this, I wonder if Djibouti qualifies as a micro-country? If so, I take it back, I love micro-countries, apart from Djibouti. I think I may have driven through Monaco with my parents as a kid, on our way to Italy, but that certainly didn’t count and I headed there after saying farewell to my friends in Portugal.

The first thing to hit me was the ridiculous number of yachts in the water. And few were cheap looking. In fact, many in the Port de Fontvielle were million dollar toys.

Across the rock, in the Port Hercule, is where I found the ten million dollar toys.

Are further from shore, in the deeper part of the port, the hundred million dollar toys. I even saw one, in the distance towards Nice, which probably couldn’t fit anywhere in the harbour. But I could only see a small portion between two condo towers, so I am not sure if it was one of the world’s mega-yacht, or a cruise ship.

Some of the yacht owners have spent so much on their boats that they are left nearly broke, and they have to be driven to the boat in a cheap $350,000 Bentley.

Those who were wiser made sure to leave themselves enough money for a helicopter. Continue reading

36 hour trip: Portugal, Spain, the U.K. and Africa!

While planning our trip to Portugal, I looked at something on Google Map and realized how close it was to Gibraltar. Then, while zooming in to figure out where to park in Gibraltar, I saw a ferry. The decision was made that instant, in one short week-end, we would travel from Portugal, to Spain, to the U.K., to Africa and back to Portugal through Spain!

I went to Gibraltar thinking it would be fun to experience a British enclave and feel the rich history of the place. I was not prepared to witness the incredible beauty and immense size of “the Rock”. On this mostly clear day, the top was always in the clouds, but they were the clouds the mountain creates itself, by forcing humid air up its near vertical cliffs. It reminded me a little of Queen Mary’s Peak on Tristan da Cunha.

The clouds forming as they approach The Rock.

You may have noticed the strange-looking antennas in the background of the first picture. I am not quite sure what they are, but you definitely are not allowed to go there. Likely something to do with aliens.

I’m not very fond of “me-in-front-of” pictures, but this is me in the UK, with Africa in the background! Continue reading

Taking a vacation from travelling in lovely Portugal (if that makes any sense).

Two of my friends from back home, Marie-Josée and Geneviève, had been working in Central Asia for a few months and were taking a few weeks off from the job. We had been planning to meet in the Philippines, but they emailed me and asked if we could slightly modify the plan and meet in Portugal instead. I made the minor adjustment to my itinerary and this is why I have been in Europe for nearly a month now.

The first thing to strike me in Lisbon was a sense of déjà vu. I was certain I had seen this form of wavy paving before (actually the first thing to strike me was several bottles of wine, then the pavement. No, not literally!). Then it came back to me, I had seen it in the former Portuguese colony of Macau (now part of China – right next to Hong Kong).

I pulled out this photo I took in 2004. I guess the pattern was popular with the Portuguese of past centuries. They certainly managed to export the style. I bet I could find it in Angola or Mozambique.

I know my Portuguese friend Ricardo, whom I met in Laos and later Thailand, is anxious for me to write about my travels in Portugal. Unfortunately, I have very little to say. First because we only stayed 5 days, but also because it was more of a vacation trip rather than an exploration trip. Hanging around in cafes, eating good food and drinking great [quantities of] wine, occupied much of our time. This picture of the three of us toasting captures my friend’s first drink after several months spent working in Boringistan. Continue reading

Total chaos in Luxembourg: somebody made a graffiti!

I had planned to travel to Luxembourg last year, but logistical difficulties made me cancel the visit. I again had problems with transportation and schedule, but I wasn’t going to cancel my trip once more, so I went, even though the stay would be way too short. As is often the case with air travel, earlier flights were 3-4 times more expensive, and I couldn’t stay over the week-end, as I wanted to visit friends in Belgium. So here’s my ~30 hour visit to Luxembourg.

I didn’t start by visiting the Grand-Ducal Palace, I stumbled upon it by chance. It differs from typical European palaces in two ways. First, it doesn’t sit on a massive piece of land, it is right downtown, on the street. Second, it physically shares a wall with Parliament. Luckily for the Grand Duke (the only reigning Grand Duke in the world), the Palace is where he works, not where he lives.

A long time ago, the street in front of the Parliament housed a herb market. This history has remained even though the market is long gone. In Canada and the United States, journalists will often refer to a law being discussed “on the hill” (Parliament and Capitol Hill, respectively). In Luxembourg, they say “… and the new bill was proposed today at the herb market”!

You might notice that the Luxembourgish flag looks a lot like the Dutch flag. In fact, it is exactly the same, except the blue stripe is a different tone. Not surprising then to learn that the King of the Netherlands reigned over Liechtenstein until 1890.

In Luxembourg as in most places, ceremonial guards look to their front and remain immobile. They look sharp and give and important and solemn air to the place they guard.

Of course, the level of security they provide is, well, ceremonial. And people make graffiti on the wall of the Palace. I was a little surprised they would leave it there.

But less then an hour later, I saw they had no such intention! Continue reading

Belgrade: when the weather won’t cooperate, go for the food – and the alcohol!

The final step in my Balkan road trip was Serbia. I was going to spend a day in Novi Sad and a day and a half in Belgrade. Unfortunately, the weather was just horrible and I figured going to Novi Sad was really a waste of time and money.

This is mostly what I saw during my first day in Belgrade; the interior of cafes.

On the second day, the rain died down to a drizzle, and I was able to go on a guided walking tour of the city. The guide was quite entertaining and good at mixing the serious and the funny. After showing us one of Belgrade’s last remaining mosque (which was torched twice in the last decades following tensions with Albanians over Kosovo), she said: “and if you turn around and look at the window, you will see my mom and my cat”! Turns out she lived in front of that sometimes dangerous building.

We walked in the bohemian quarter, where artists and intellectuals have been gathering for centuries. This was even the case during the Cold War. While Belgrade was certainly not Montmartre at that time, it was much more liberal than for example, cities in the Soviet Union.

Since for artists, inspiration often rhymes with alcohol, the sign indicating the distances to various cities also points towards the moon. Apparently at the end of the evening, some need to be reminded which side is up and which is down. Continue reading