Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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Rocks, rocks, and more rocks. Everywhere I looked, Malta’s indigenous wheat-colored limestone dominated the landscape. Roads, houses, hospitals, government buildings, shops, and forts were crafted from the monotonous sedimentary rock, as if the island had regurgitated its innards into piles that masons crafted into structures on the spot.

Market Street, one of the two main streets in Valletta, the capital of Malta

Market Street, one of the two main streets in Valletta, the capital of Malta

I was puzzled by the poor condition of many buildings. Edges of the blocks were eroding and pock marks were wearing into the face of the unsealed limestone. Wooden balconies slumped from the facade, in imminent danger of collapse. But as I toured the cities and countryside of Malta, a historic view emerged that reversed my initial impression.

The earliest structures to be built of the endemic stone were pre-Bronze Age temples and underground sanctuaries. After several hundred years under Phoenician and Carthaginian rule, for which there is no remaining architectural record, the Romans arrived in 218 BC. For 1,100 years they embellished buildings with cornices, columns, and decorative tablets, and filled their homes with statuary, all carved from the local limestone. Read More

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The questions started the moment I announced I was fleeing corporate life to travel the world. It’s dangerous out there; aren’t you worried about traveling alone? How will you stay in touch? And how will you support yourself? I wasn’t afraid and knew I would be able to stay in touch, but I had no answers regarding income. I just knew that I’d dreamed of being a travel writer and photographer since childhood, and I couldn’t let one more day pass without attempting to make that dream come true.

Nearly eight years later, I’ve managed to achieve my goal, and the longer I’m at this, the more people want to know how I do it. For most, the question of money is at the top of the list. It’s a question over which all travel bloggers struggle. People are always surprised to learn that our blogs are not a major source of income. Instead, we’ve tapped into other talents and experience to earn the money needed to support our travels and our blogs. We run tour companies; consult in public relations, internet security, and social media; are public speakers; design websites and apps; and are technical writers; all jobs that can be done anywhere in the world that offers reliable Internet access. But far and away, the most popular means of earning money while traveling is by teaching English.

Intermediate English class at ElanGuest English Language School

Intermediate English class at ElanGuest English Language School

While I’ve never considered teaching English, when ElanGuest English Language School in Malta invited me to visit their school, I realized it would be an opportunity to provide readers with a behind-the-scenes look at teaching English as a second language (ESL). The three tiny specs in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea that comprise the Maltese Islands are among the world’s most popular destinations for learning English. Along with Maltese, English is an official language of Malta and most residents speak it fluently. Read More

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In 1693, an earthquake decimated eight towns in an area known as Vall di Noto in southeast Sicily. In some cases, the damage was so severe that the original towns could not be rescued. It was decided that one of these, Noto, would be rebuilt five miles closer to the sea, at the foot of the Iblean Mountains. The Catholic Church, which by that time had decreed that paintings and sculptures should be designed in a way that would speak to the illiterate, saw the reconstruction of Noto as a unique opportunity to design and build a town from scratch. The top planners of the day mapped out streets that crossed each other either at right angles, while architects designed private and public buildings embellished with beautiful ornamentation that later came to be known as Baroque.

Ferdinandea Gate is the entrance to the city of Noto, and the beginning of Corso Vittorio Emanuele, the main avenue in the town

Ferdinandea Gate is the entrance to the city of Noto, and the beginning of Corso Vittorio Emanuele, the main avenue in the town

Today, a stroll down Via Vittorio Emanuele, the main street in Noto, leads visitors past churches, government buildings, palaces, fountains, statues, and theaters, all studded with an orgy of cherubs, grotesquely grinning masks, marble columns, wrought-iron balconies, and belfrys. The buildings were constructed of a soft, honey-color tufa stone that absorbs the brilliant Sicilian sun throughout the day and emits it at sunset. With stone blocks decorated in leaves, flowers, fish scales, and shells, the effect is one of a giant golden wedding cake. Read More

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The clash of metal swords on shields reverberated through the theater. One knight fell, then another; but King Oberto fought on, determined to take back Holland from the Irish invaders. Olimpia, his lady love, had been banished from her homeland, and Oberto would stain the Dutch lands with blood to convince Olimpia of his bravery and win her hand in marriage. In the dark theater I watched the characters intently, fascinated that two-foot high puppets could make movements so precise.

Puppets with shield and sword mount a fierce battle during a performance at Teatro dei Pupi

Puppets with shield and sword mount a fierce battle during a performance at Teatro dei Pupi

A New Hope for Olimpia is just one of 24 shows that Alfredo Mauceri has written and produced over the years for Teatro dei Pupi. Following the performance I spoke with him about his family’s three-generation love affair with puppets.

“My Mother, Francesca Vaccaro, does all the female voices and my brother, Daniel, builds the puppets,” he explained. “I write the story and am an actor during the show, along with Daniel and one other relative. Together, the three of us move the characters during the show, sometimes one in each hand.” Read More

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For someone with a cheese fetish, all of Sicily was heaven, but I found the the holy grail one morning in Syracuse while wandering through the fresh market. Tucked behind the temporary vendors at the very end of the market was Caseificio Borderi (Borderi Dairy), a small family-run shop specializing in traditional hand-made Sicilian cheese.

Located at the far end of the fresh market in Syracuse, Sicily, Caseificio Borderi offered liberal samples of artisan cheeses made in Sicily

Located at the far end of the fresh market in Syracuse, Sicily, Caseificio Borderi offered liberal samples of artisan cheeses made in Sicily

I was staying in a hostel, where I could cook my own meals. Since there is nothing better than a breakfast of fresh baked bread drizzled in rich olive oil and topped with a tasty chunk of local cheese, I wedged my way through the throng and into the shop to peruse the mind-boggling array of cheeses in the glass case and on the counter top. Fortunately, one of the owners was happy to educate me about Ragusano, a type of stretched-curd cheese made with whole milk from modicana breed cows, raised exclusively of fresh grass or hay in the provinces of Ragusa and Siracusa, Sicily (see video below). Read More

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I had no plans to visit the city of Syracuse when I headed for Sicily. I wanted to experience the Good Friday Procession in Taormina, and perhaps take a tour to the top of Mount Etna, but as for other destinations, I’d figure it out along the way, as usual. Sure enough, on the train from Naples to Sicily I met a couple of women who were on their way to Siracusa, as they called it. Both had emigrated to the United States many years ago and spoke perfect English, but they had been born and raised in Syracuse and were traveling back home to visit family. For half an hour they spun tales about the gorgeous Baroque churches, ancient Greek and Roman ruins, fresh markets, and mouthwatering food in their home town. I was hooked!

Two weeks later I stepped off the train and walked half a block to LOL Hostel, a warm and welcoming hostel in Syracuse that was ideally located midway between the city’s two most important attractions, the Archeological Park and Ortygia Island. The next morning I crossed the harbor bridge leading to the island and stopped in front of the Temple of Apollo, Sicily’s most ancient Greek temple and the second oldest in the world. Constructed in the 6th century B.C., at the point when Greek architecture was transitioning from wood to stone, its narrowly spaced Doric columns were revolutionary, if not experimental. Indeed, an inscription on the top step on the eastern facade lauds the temple’s unique construction:

_“Kleomenes, the son of Knidieides built it for Apollo. And he put his hand to the columns; beautiful accomplishments they are.”

Piazza Pancali and Temple of Apollo on Ortygia Island in Syracuse, Sicily

Piazza Pancali and Temple of Apollo on Ortygia Island in Syracuse, Sicily

There could hardly be a better symbol for Syracuse than the Temple of Apollo. Syracuse was founded in 734 B.C. on the island of Ortygia by the Greek city/state of Corinth, at a time when the Greeks were colonizing locations around the Mediterranean. For more than 400 years, during periods of democracy as well as rule by a series of Greek tyrants, Syracuse prospered and gradually extended its influence over much of Sicily and southern Italy. Read More