Life is a journey, life is a dream, we are migrants and happy slaves of wanderlust. As such, for me, the last decade has been a pivotal one. One that neither my genes nor my memories will allow me to forget. This was my debut decade in travel. I first flew beyond the confines of my small island in 2008 when I travelled to Valencia (ok, 2008 is just a bit more than a decade, apologies to the maths-nazis). And I haven’t stopped since.
Unlike perhaps other travellers, I got to travel late. I had just turned 20 when I got my first experience of planes, airports, large cities, bullrings, avenues and landscapes that weren’t made of limestone, traffic and politics.
At first, popping my travel cherry at 20 didn’t feel like a blessing. It certainly wasn’t a choice. My teenage years – beautifully hedonistic though they were – had been a frustrated pilgrimage of the mind without an end destination. I yearned to travel, yearned to see what’s beyond the been-there-done-that island of Malta. I devoured books, from Hemingway, Garcia Lorca, Octavio Paz, Fernando Pessoa and Rimbaud. Everything that interested me was out there.
As such, travel became to me this kind of holy grail, an elusive panacea that would cure me of all my ennui. When it finally happened, not a single moment of it was a disappointment. I was hooked.
Despite the fact that, by now, as a 31-year-old, I’ve more than made up for my static teenage years, travel still feels like something almost sacred to me. Getting on a plane (the only way to leave Malta except by catamaran to Sicily) feels like soaring into the realm where the gods once reigned, getting on a train (which we don’t have here) feels like a privilege; and the whole time I’m travelling, exploring, I am aware and awake to the fact that I am in another part of this planet, sharing it with people raised in different climes and mindset to my own.
Travel is a privilege that I will never take for granted.
So here are my favourite adventures of the past decade. Hopefully, you too will be tempted to visit these places. Always, always travel like a pilgrim, because every place in the world is sacred in its own way.
Back in my student days, we got the opportunity to travel to Italy, as part of a 2 week stay where we would learn about the cuisine, culture and tourism industry of the region. We were based in a small spa town near Parma. Salsomaggiore was a mountainous, quiet, misty little town that treated the hedonist well. It was a good hub which we used to explore cities like Brescia, Ferrara, Parma and Firenze. Along the way we were taught how to make fresh ravioli in a culinary school, tasted polenta prepared for us by a top Italian chef and visited a factory were they produce parmiggiano in the green hills of Emilia-Romagna. I got to learn that Italians, contrary to popular belief, knew how to drink – which is always a happy revelation. This was only my second ever time abroad and my first experience in Italy though not the last.
Growing up I was familiar with the myth of England. The myth fleshed out in authors like D.H. Lawrence, H.G. Wells, Evelyn Waugh, E.M. Forster and others. English novels were the first I’d read. And I also grew up obsessed with English music – especially northern bands like The Smiths, Stone Roses and Joy Division. So when I got the chance to visit the mythical country – the Empire that once ruled over Malta – for my girlfriend’s brother’s wedding, I was excited and curious. I took it on as an anthropological expedition to see how the former master influenced us, the former colonised. We stayed in Peterborough but also made a day-trip to London – which we mostly spent in that great naturalist cathedral, the Natural History Museum. In the end, as much as I enjoyed travelling to the other side of the continent and finding a place so intimately familiar, I couldn’t get over the damn weather!
The adventure that nearly broke my toe. As beautiful as Barcelona and Granada turned out to be, my abiding memory of this trip remains its conception. I had taken part in the IEMed Literature Festival, an annual festival for authors from around the Mediterranean. That year, the theme was cultural integration in the Mediterranean. For the readers who know me, they will know, this topic verges on the realm of the hippie. But I made it non-hippie. Wrote about the family of a Muslim family living in Malta being beaten up purely because of their religious beliefs. And anyway, I’m a slut for a good festival. And as chance would have it – I was selected amongst the 20 finalists and was offered a free trip to Spain to participate in the awards ceremony and workshops. When I received the email I banged my toe against my desk as I ran down the stairs in sheer elation. I’ll never forget that moment. And Granada cast a spell on me. Barcelona – not so much!
- Madrid 2010
Plaza Mayor, El Botin, Museo del Prado, Reina Sofia and Puerta del Sol; Madrid’s list of sights grew into something mythological even as I was there. Madrid is the kind of town you fall in love with straight away. Whether it’s gazing on a Velazquez masterpiece at the Prado or having a late night drink at the Plaza Sant Ana – the city will get to you. This was my second time in Spain, a few months before Barcelona/Granada, and already the country was leaving an indelible mark on me; it’s influence as profound as a parent’s on a child.
It took me awhile to return to Italy after my Emilia-Romagna trip of 2009. In 2015 I visited the Eternal City with my family. The city of Pasolini, Fellini and the greatest ancient civilisation to grace the Mediterranean. An exquisitely scenic, photogenic city; don’t waste your time here in queues for the Vatican or the Coliseum, go instead to enjoy its café life, its old streets, its cuisine and inimitable bustle. Rome doesn’t belong to history, it belongs to the Romans. It is also a city, like Madrid, of great squares; from the Piazza Navona, to Piazza d’Espagna and Repubblica, these black-holes of culture and life will draw you in and make you wish you never have to leave.
- Valencia 2012
On my first trip to Valencia – my first trip anywhere – I remember, the last few hours there before I had to catch my flight, walking to the fountain in the Plaza de la Virgen, reading a book of Octavio Paz poems and looking round me saying a teary farewell to the city that had captivated me. Deep down though, I never believed I this was our farewell. Sure enough, a few years later, in 2012, I was back in Valencia. And it didn’t disappoint. Revisiting the Ciudad de las Artes, the bullring and the Barrio del Carmen felt as invigorating as before. The city that feels like an intimate town, was just as majestic as I had remembered it. And this time, I had better taste in food too, a better traveller’s instinct. I even ended up watching a pre-season friendly at the Mestalla stadium between Valencia C.F. and Gareth Bale’s Tottenham; the tickets were a free gift that I got for buying a Valencia shirt and having my name imprinted on the back. Valencia is a city that keeps on giving.
- Madrid 2016
Just as with my return to Valencia, my return to Madrid seemed to be elevated and only placed the city on a higher pedestal than it already occupied in my pantheon. Revisiting a city is a surreal experience: you’re in a foreign country and yet you feel familiar. I had already seen the main sights of Madrid and now I could focus on enjoying life in the city so adored by Hemingway. I saw a bullfight there, in the cathedral of bullfighting, Las Ventas. All the while my girlfriend stayed behind shopping in the Puerta del Sol. Me and her enjoyed several Cuban nights at the magical La Negra Tomasa. We also took our time enjoying the Retiro Park and several afternoons lounging with vermouth and tapas in the new Mercado San Miguel. I have a feeling, still, that our story with Madrid hasn’t yet ended.
Spain again. But this time: Andalucia. The heart of Spain, the birthplace of bullfighters and flamenco. This was a quiet, relaxed getaway immersed in late-night flamenco shows, excellent, authentic tapas from restaurants like Casa Moreno and El Rinconillo, and gentle, inspiring strolls on the sands of the Maestranza bullring. Sevilla is a city with music on every corner, a city where the influence of the Moors still pervades in its Alcazars and architecture. It’s a city that tantalises the senses; the sounds of swifts in the evenings and the scent of orange blossom in the air. This happened this year, 2019, and I feel like I’m truly growing into my own as a traveller, and it’s no wonder I’m writing a novel set in this immersive city.
Speaking of novels, number two had to be the city that took another important virginity for any traveller: the solo-travel cherry. As some of you might know, at the moment I have a novel available on Amazon called Beauty and Freedom. The novel is set in one of my favourite cities of them all, Budapest. I went there on a whim, knowing very little on the place and spent five days on my own in an Airbnb. But I was quickly converted to the creed of Budapest. It is a truly sensational city, set along the broad Danube, a city unmatched for its architecture porn, its buzz, its joie de vivre and quality of heavy foods like goulash and langos and even heavier drinks like Unicum and palinka. Few cities have inspired me as much as this. And it gave me yet another bug: the solo-travel bug.
Every now and then I find myself having a quiet beer, relaxing, my mind wandering and suddenly an image of grey, ice-covered mountains comes spiraling into my imagination and I think: I did that. I travelled for nearly 24 hours to travel to the southern hemisphere of this planet; I visited Chile, home of Pablo Neruda and the Mapuche; I travelled a further 4 hours south, almost into the Antarctic, to visit one of the last remote places left on the planet, Patagonia. I’ll never forget waking up to a 10 o’clock sunrise, walking into the frosty tundra, crossing grey lakes and getting a boat for a 3-hour ride on a glacial lake, topped off by pisco sours with ice from the very lake itself. I feel an immense swell of pride whenever I look back on this trip. As if, somehow, I’ve defied some unwritten odds and given a great big middle-finger to ennui and meaninglessness. I know there’s meaning to life for I’ve seen Patagonia. And I will never unsee it.