Royal Mile

Last week-ish — I don’t remember the exact day (sue me, I’m retired) — Carol and I went out for an afternoon and evening on the Royal Mile. That’s the street that runs from Holyrood Palace, one of the Monarchy’s royal residences, up a long steep hill to Edinburgh Castle. It was typical Scotland “good times” weather, which is to say damp, chilly, and overcast. (At this point I’m sufficiently dialed into the local Weltanschauung that I welcome such weather as a good excuse for investigating pubs.)

We started out with a self-guided tour of Holyrood. I’d like to be able to show you what it looked like inside, but unfortunately the palace is one of those historical sites where you’re not allowed to take pictures. Carol and I speculated it’s probably for security purposes, since the Queen lives there for a short time each year. One doesn’t want terrorists to get ahold of some tourist photos and triangulate the mortar coordinates of Prince Philip’s place setting in the formal dining room. Which could absolutely happen.

So in lieu of visual aids, I’ll describe the palace for you.

I want you to imagine a lofty, square room, with a tall window set in a deep stone embrasure. The interior walls are covered in dark wood paneling, rather resembling Littlefinger’s brothel in Game of Thrones. Throw in a couple very large, faded tapestries; some paintings of people with trowel-shaped faces in Renaissance Fair costumes; and a massive square bed decorated so as to ensure vivid nightmares.

Right. Now read that paragraph over, ten or a dozen times. There you are, you’ve just toured Holyrood Palace.

Yes, yes, I’m joking of course. There was also a dining room.

Every great house needs a murder story, and Holyrood is no exception. In 1566, David Rizzio, faithful private secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, was stabbed to death in her presence by henchmen of her husband, Lord Darnley, who was also on hand. Presumably this made dinner conversation awkward between them for some time thereafter. Signage in the palace is unclear as to the motive for the secretary’s murder, though at the time rumors swirled that his typing was execrable and his shorthand even worse. His body was dragged away to Mary’s Outer Chamber, where the blood stains are still visible on the floor, owing to the sixteenth century’s lamentable dearth of effective liquid floor cleaners.

For me, the highlight of my Holyrood visit was seeing the Queen’s Gallery. What I expected to find was a dolorous lineup of portraits of the usual royal suspects; but instead, the gallery was given over entirely to artifacts brought back by Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Albert Edward (later King Edward VII), from an expedition to the Indian subcontinent. The precious items were gifts from local potentates. There was no prohibition to photographing them, so see if you can spot them in our extensive and growing Edinburgh Gallery. Hint: they’re nearly all sharp. It is said that you can tell a great deal about someone by the sorts of gifts they give; but in this case it may say more about the recipient and his forbears, that the crown prince came away with enough knives, daggers, and pikes to take on an entire army of private secretaries.

After exhausting all the possibilities of Holyrood, Carol and I ascended the Royal Mile to find a place for dinner and suitable liquid refreshment. And this being Scotland, by “suitable” I obviously mean “whiskey”. I’m not a professional drinker, but a draught of excellent single-malt scotch from the land named after it is something to warm the haggis of any reasonable person, especially on a raw Edinburgh evening.

And since it was to be my birthday present from Carol, we felt we had license to look out a nice place, even if the price was a little beyond our usual guidelines. Despite the chill, there were plenty of people on the streets, window shopping and enjoying the old town vibe. We stopped at several pubs, previewing menus and scouting ambience, before settling on The Whiski Rooms, a cosy place on the Mound. (Crossing the Mile a few blocks down from Edinburgh Castle, the Mound runs down steeply on either side toward the parallel streets below.)

We both opted for a safe food choice with fish and chips, and saved our adventuring for the drinks menu — though the fish turned out to be a bit unusual in its preparation, and quite tasty. With some trepidation for what I was getting into, I ordered a flight of four whiskies. I needn’t have worried: the pours were quite modest and I was able to walk unaided by the time we were ready to settle up. All of the four scotches were excellent, but the Glenfarclas 15 and the Glendronach 18 were the stars.

We left the Whiski Rooms with a lovely feeling of well-being, and strolled the rest of the Mile up to the castle. Looking out from high parking lot over the brightly-lit city below, I felt a real affection for Edinburgh, and a sense of growing familiarity. We have spent time here off and on since last August with our wonderful host Sue, and it has come to feel like a second home.

Turning our faces back down the Mile, we directed our steps through the colorfully-lit streets and into the night.

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View from the Pentlands

One day it’s sunny, and you go out. The next day it rains, so you settle into a comfy chair and write. (And maybe the next day and the next.) That’s the rhythm of life, and blogging, in Auld Reekie.

Carol and I are back in Edinburgh, after arriving in the rain last Friday.

Yesterday (Sunday) dawned crisp and sunny, with a few high, wispy clouds. At least, that’s what I imagine; still jet lagged, Carol and I didn’t manage to prise open a bleary eye until about 10. But with scrubbed blue skies and brilliant sun persisting through the day, it was time to go tramping in the Pentlands — the hills ranging south and west of the city. With our lovely host Susan and Pippin the Wonder Dog, we drove a short way out to Flotterstone.

The car park looked to be overrun with people eager to take advantage of the fine weather; but as we entered, the angel chorus rang out from on high and a space miraculously opened at our approach. After a quick genuflection, we all donned our cold weather bits, and Carol and Sue set out on the low road with Pip, following the asphalt drive from the Flotterstone Inn back to Glencorse Reservoir. I, lusting after a more scenic view, took the high road — climbing the ridge above the reservoir up the grassy eminence of Scald Law.

Pentlands hike gallery »

The highest peak in the Pentlands, Scald Law is still only about 1900 feet in elevation. The climb up is steep enough to be challenging, nevertheless, and even without a pack I was panting like a dog by the time I’d negotiated the undulating trail and reached the stony crown. (It’s been three months and a few hundred desserts, donuts, Christmas cookies, and full-fat mochas since backpacking Yosemite. Apparently, gravity has gotten stronger in the interim.)

All the exertion was well rewarded by the 360 degree panorama from the top. To the south, the pale winter-green hills folded into the distance. Hundreds of meters below me, at the feet of the near slopes, the reservoir was a silver mirror reflecting a row of black trees. To the north whence I came, brightly clad hikers climbed the trail past fat white sheep; and further on, the hills flattened out to pastures stretching to the borders of the city.

My delight at the view began after a while to give way to hunger. Looking forward to meeting up with Carol and Sue in the Flotterstone Inn pub, I prepared to go — and realized that the climb down might be nearly as challenging as the ascent. The steepest parts of the trail were slicked with snow and ice crystals, and churned by many boots to near-freezing mud. Digging in hard with the soles of my hikers, though, and moving where necessary at the speed of a beetle carrying a bowling ball, I managed to make it back down without going ass over teakettle.

There is nothing quite like a British pub for warmth, good humor, and the best comfort foods. Carol recharged with pheasant and a pint of Strongbow, while I feasted on a generous steak and ale pie, jacket potato, and a local IPA. Sue, the vegetarian of the group, enjoyed a robust-looking lentil soup, and Pippin lazed contentedly beside our chairs, enjoying the attentions of the nice woman at the adjacent table.

It’s comfortable to be back in Scotland.

Masters of the Everyday

On Thursday, in the hours before we left the US to return to Edinburgh, Carol and I made time to visit a remarkable exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Having cleverly orchestrated a winter weather calamity on the east coast, we were able to suppress visitor turnout to the museum, so that when we arrived at the west wing we were able to walk directly in without a wait.

Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry is a show the likes of which I dreamed of when I was a grad student in Art History. It not only assembles the world’s greatest Vermeer paintings under one roof — an astonishing achievement, given their value and rarity — but also establishes them in the context of other great 17th century Dutch genre painters whose work informed, and was inspired by, Vermeer’s. Gabriel Metsu, Gerrit Dou, Caspar Netscher, Frans Van Mieris, and the divinely talented Gerard ter Borch are all superbly represented here.

Genre painting is simply the depiction of scenes from everyday life. In Netherlandish art of the 17th century, genre images are most often scenes of women doing things in their homes, people interacting in taverns or brothels, or occasionally men going about their professional activities. Often there is a humorous or moralizing aspect to the pictures. The image at top, for instance, is an excerpt from ter Borch’s Young Woman with a Soldier and an Onlooker, c. 1650, from the collection of the Musée Fabre. It probably takes place in a brothel, though if you’re wondering what the young woman is up to with the sleeping soldier, I haven’t the faintest idea. Whatever it is, both she and the onlooker find it pretty entertaining. It’s impossible to miss the absolutely dazzling technique the artist shows off here with his depiction of surfaces — the woman’s dress, the sheen of the soldier’s breastplate, the sparkling highlights of the brass ewer. More subtle, but no less masterful, is the composition, with its rhythmic massing and diagonal momentum that draws your eye directly to the woman’s left hand.

I absolutely loved this show — not only because it pulled together such a remarkable haul of iconic paintings from Vermeer, but also for its prominent inclusion of equally brilliant artists and pictures that are not as universally known. Gabriel Metsu’s Man Writing a Letter, for instance, is a flawless gem, as good as nearly anything else in the exhibition.

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Ironically, having had the opportunity now to see the greatest works of Vermeer’s sublime oeuvre together in the same place, I believe the very best of them is the one I’ve seen so often in Washington’s permanent collection: the Woman Holding a Balance (above) from about 1664.

Notwithstanding the poor photo quality from my phone camera, it is, simply, a perfect painting. We see a young woman holding a jeweler’s scale, with gold, pearls, and other valuables spread out around her. Her scale’s empty pans hang at equal height, in the moment before she adds weight to one and breaks the equilibrium. In keeping with the theme of balance, the scene is divided into halves of light and shadow, while the floor is half white tiles and half black.

The painting-within-a-painting dominating the wall behind the woman provides the key to the full meaning of the picture. Vermeer liked to include paintings within his compositions, and they often add a layer of meaning. In the Woman Holding a Balance, the background painting is a Last Judgment, wherein the risen Christ judges the souls of the dead to separate the elect from the damned — the saved to our left and the damned to our right. Last Judgment scenes in medieval painting and sculpture often included a figure holding a balance, in which the souls of the dead were weighed — a motif with which Vermeer would no doubt have been familiar. In his painting, the protagonist herself holds the scale, and it is her own soul in the balance.

17th century Dutch painting is rife with examples of “vanitas” imagery — beautiful objects, luscious foods, lovely flowers presented to the beholder as a sort of test. Don’t be led astray by such things, they whisper, when your true treasure awaits in heaven. In Vermeer’s picture, the woman straddles the border between light and shadow; tempted by the golden blandishments of earthly life, she is tellingly framed between the saved and the condemned in the Last Judgment, standing directly beneath the celestial judge.

Beyond its intellectual content, the painting is just achingly beautiful. Unrivaled in any age as a painter of light, Vermeer washes the room in velvety shadows, deftly highlighting the hand holding the balance. He eschews his customary lemony palette in favor of cool grey, sumptuous cobalt, rich brown — suitable to the contemplative mood. The young woman regards the scale with an unreadable expression; her left hand rests on the table as she hesitates before loading the pans.

Poised at the crossroads between dark and light, which path will she choose?

Year in Review: 10 Peak Experiences of 2017

Given the fact that both my birthday and the year’s end arrive on the same day, this seems like an excellent time to look back over the past 12 months and raise a glass to the most memorable moments. Here then, in what I hope will be an annual feature, is a quick sprint through my 10 peak experiences for 2017.

The Great Mosque, Córdoba

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What: A brilliantly designed mosque begun in the 10th century, expanded and enhanced over hundreds of years; later converted to a Christian cathedral following the Reconquista, and modified to encompass a sumptuous Renaissance church.

Where: Córdoba, Spain

When: February 20

What made it special: Wandering from one architectural marvel to the next with my mouth wagging open in awe; imagining generations of worshipers, Muslim and Christian, walking among these arcades for the first time.

Great Mosque Gallery »

Tossa de Mar

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What: A sun-washed Spanish town with cobblestone streets, a medieval castle, and a handsome crescent of beach on the Costa Brava.

Where: Catalonia, Spain

When: March 25

What made it special: Reveling in the first fruits of spring with a bright, warm beach day; climbing the winding path to enjoy spectacular views at the top of the cliffs.

Tossa de Mar Gallery »

Valley of the Temples

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What: A sprawling archaeological site in southwestern Sicily, featuring beautifully preserved Greek temples.

Where: Agrigento, Italy

When: April 24

What made it special: Warm ochre columns towering into brisk blue skies; a group of tourist women about my age giggling over a fallen bronze statue sporting a heroic phallus.

Agrigento Gallery »

The Blue Lagoon

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What: a sheltered cove of otherworldly turquoise waters, off the island of Comino.

Where: Comino, Malta

When: May 18

What made it special: Swimming the chilly waters from the beach to the cliffs; climbing up to sun myself like an iguana, while taking in the view over the Maltese islands and the blue Mediterranean; leaving a bit of myself in the lagoon (when my wedding ring slipped off my finger and was lost).

Blue Lagoon Gallery »

Pompeii

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What: Excavated shell of the wealthy Roman city of Pompeii, buried by the volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE.

Where: Campania, Italy

When: May 30

What made it special: Imagining how a Pompeiian would have felt in the moment his doom was upon him — knowing that neither his wealth and sophistication nor all the power of Rome could save him.

Pompeii Gallery »

Paestum

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What: Remains of an ancient Greek colonial city (Posidonia) just south of what is now the Amalfi Coast in Italy. This UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site features three of the best-preserved Doric temples in the world.

Where: Campania, Italy

When: May 31

What made it special: Quiet, contemplative grounds where you could explore the temples and house foundations without barriers.

Paestum Gallery »

The High Tatras

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What: Day hiking the stony uplands of the High Tatras, the roof of Slovakia, with our Airbnb host family.

Where: Štrbské Pleso, Slovakia

When: June 22

What made it special: Climbing from warm lowlands to frigid alpine lakes and snowfields, and back again; austere cliffs crowned by immaculate azure skies; the high-spirited antics of our excellent host and guide, Jan.

High Tatras Gallery »

Yosemite

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What: Backpacking the Mist Trail, Little Yosemite Valley, and Clouds Rest at Yosemite National Park.

Where: Yosemite, CA

When: October 11-14

What made it special: Unparalleled views from the summit of Clouds Rest; flawless weather, with air so crisp it almost crunched in your mouth; sharing one of the earth’s most beautiful places with both my sons.

Yosemite Gallery »

Sailing School

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What: Sunshine Coast Adventures‘ week-long sailing school for couples, teaching ASA courses 101-104.

Where: Indian Summer II, a 41-foot Morgan ketch, based at Tavernier, FL

When: November 1-7

What made it special: Waking up to sun-washed skies; working hard through a day of Captain Jenn’s meticulous tutelage; relaxing at anchor with a cold beer; falling asleep to the rocking of gentle swells. Times seven.

Sailing School Gallery »

GardenFest of Lights”

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What: The annual festival of Christmas lights at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.

Where: Richmond, VA

When: December 19

What made it special: Arriving in the gloaming, and watching the lights wax and blaze brightly as the night deepened; the softly-colored shadows of the forested footpaths. After a year in which politics and distance often kept us apart, Mom and I were able to re-bond in the Christmas magic of the gardens.

GardenFest Gallery »

Flashback: The Charms of Czechia

Taking an astrophysics conference in Prague as our excuse, Carol (the astrophysicist) and I (the average dude) spent several weeks of June and July, 2017, in Czechia.

Based on the experience of a week there, I’d have to declare Prague near the top of my favorite cities list. For one thing, it’s drop-dead gorgeous. If you love Art Deco — and I do — you’ll find a veritable feast for the eyes in many precincts of the city, including the majestic esplanade of Václavské Náměstí. If pastel-hued 18th and 19th century monumental architecture is more your taste, or splendid churches and synogogues, or jaw-dropping squares full of enticing outdoor cafes, Prague will punch your ticket.

Want to talk about food? The city is chock-a-block with reasonably priced restaurants covering cuisines from around the world. Every kind of libation you require is available in plenty, with top-end absinth being a particular strong suit. And if you’re a beer lover, you’ll find the best pilseners in the world on tap for less than a can of soda.

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Culturally, Prague is one of the greatest destinations in Europe, and English is widely spoken. Performing arts in the city are world class. History is compellingly on display, in everything from the splendor of the Lobkowicz Palace and St. Vitus Cathedral to the somber eloquence of the Jewish Quarter and cemetery. Museums run the gamut from the encyclopedic (National Museum) to the just plain weird (Torture Museum, Museum of Sex Machines, and Museum of Historical Chamber Pots and Toilets).

Get the full immersion with a stroll through our Czechia gallery »

After Carol’s astro conference was over, we headed out to spend the next two weeks in the Czech hinterland. Czechia made this year’s Conde Nast Traveler list of the world’s ten safest travel destinations; and as you might expect from such a designation, the nation feels everywhere quite welcoming and warm. While the countryside is not spectacular — mostly a landscape of gently rolling hills, forested flats, and quiet rivers — there are towns in each region that are beautiful and historic. One of the most famous of these is Český Krumlov, a stunning little city in South Bohemia with roots going back to the 13th century. A UNESCO World Heritage site flanking the Vltava River, the old city center is adorned with Renaissance and Baroque buildings, all sheltered beneath the diligent overwatch of its medieval castle (visible in the photo at the top of this article).

Another historic town, Kroměříž, was our base while we explored the Moravian (eastern) region of Czechia. The heart of Kroměříž is a lovely, broad square ringed by cafes, restaurants, and boutiques. The old town also hosts high-towered Baroque churches and the Bishop’s Palace with its magnificent gardens. The palace was the location for scenes from both Amadeus and Immortal Beloved.


If, like us, you have a thin tolerance for cold weather, you might want to forego a visit to Czechia in the brutish winter. But if you think your next summer vacation should feature a beautiful, sophisticated, and safe capital city, or historic towns with friendly people and a laid-back vibe — all without breaking the bank — you might want to start booking your accommodations now.

Season of Light

Richmond, Virginia is not my favorite city. RVA — as it’s known to the fashionable many who find it just too exhausting to go those extra syllables — is host to too much violent crime, too much blight, too much strip mall desolation for my taste. But it is not without some delightful attractions, such as Agecroft Hall, an authentic Tudor manor house removed piece by piece from England and reassembled on the bank of the James River; Maymont, a Gilded Age mansion set in a sprawl of beautiful gardens and grounds; and my favorite of all, the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.

Established in 1984 on Lakeside Avenue, Lewis Ginter is much younger than other prominent US gardens, such as Longwood or the US Botanic Garden in Washington. What it lacks in years, however, it has made up in energetic development and innovation. While the garden is beautiful in all seasons, a special treat arrives at Christmas time when Lewis Ginter mounts its GardenFest of Lights — decking its many paths, nooks, and byways with over a half million holiday lights. This year, the displays also interweave characters from children’s tales and other folklore: Hansel and Gretel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Thumbelina, and many more.

Take a walk through the pretty lights! »

Mom and I made sure to get to Lewis Ginter early, as dusk was falling, in order to ensure a decent parking space. That turned out to be an excellent decision; when we left around 7, the line of cars waiting to get in stretched for several blocks along Lakeside Avenue. We also got our GardenFest tickets online, which allowed us to skip the ticket line and get quickly out to the garden.

It seems like GardenFest gets more spectacular every year, and this edition was an absolute stunner. As we entered the garden before sundown, the lights were playing a soft, subtle accompaniment to the rosy dusk. The deeper the evening fell, the more brightly waxed the many-hued strings and clusters, until the whole place was ablaze with color.

Lewis Ginter conservatory entrance with light cluster insects

A great glass conservatory serves as the focal point for the overall garden grounds. Occupying the highest eminence, it lies directly opposite the entry building along the axis of the main fountain, and overlooks most areas of Lewis Ginter. During GardenFest, one wing of the conservatory hosts a full-sized, rustic stable, and another features a magnificent, immense Christmas tree of flowers. The tall atrium fountain is festooned with hanging stars and baubles, while outside the doors hover a swarm of giant, jewel-like insects.

Kids love GardenFest, and they make up a large part of the crowd, especially in the densely-lit section around the Children’s Garden. While I very much enjoy that part of Lewis Ginter, though, I suspect most older adults join me in preferring the quieter surrounds of the Japanese Garden. Lit mostly in blues and purples, the crepuscular paths, pools, and cataracts around the Tea House wear a lovely veil of mystery.

If like me you find the Christmas holidays more glitter than gold, and if you happen to find yourself near Richmond this season, consider gifting yourself with a restorative visit to Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. The GardenFest of Lights continues until January 8th (closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day), and runs from 5 PM until 10. Just remember to get there early.

Flashback: Malta

Beginning in late April of 2016, Carol and Pip and I spent a month in Malta. The presence of His Fuzziness ruled out the easy route to get to the island nation (flying). Instead we packed up our redoubtable Skoda and took an overnight ferry from Genoa down to Sicily, then a high speed ferry from Pozzalo to Malta.

Only about 60 miles due south of Sicily, Malta nevertheless feels surprisingly remote. Its two next closest neighbors are Tunisia and Libya to the south, and Arabic and North African influences are evident in the architecture and language of the islands. While its official first language is English, the native Malti is widely spoken and found on signage. With roots in the speech of the ancient Phoenicians who came to the islands around 750 BC, Malti has been shaped over the centuries by the many peoples who have fought over and inhabited the land since, including the Arabs, the Crusaders, and the English. It is the only Semitic language written with Latin characters, which is cool if you’re a language geek like me.

Malta encompasses three inhabited islands. At an overall length of about 17 miles, the largest island, also called Malta, hosts the national capital, Valletta. A short ferry ride to the northwest is Gozo, about 9 miles long; and between them is the tiny island of Comino, whose glorious main attraction is the enchanting Blue Lagoon. In total extent, the country is about twice the size of the District of Columbia — but surrounded by over 250 miles of spectacular coastline.

Visit our extensive Malta gallery! »

It’s astonishing how much history and architecture you can shoehorn into such a pint-sized place. Beginning as early as 3600 BC, settlers in the islands were erecting megalithic temples and monuments that would survive the ages. The millennia thereafter saw restless cycles of conquest, settlement, consolidation, and re-conquest. As late as World War II, Maltese under British dominion were still making their imprint on history — sticking a thorn in the side of Nazi military dominance in the Mediterranean, while withstanding constant attack from sea and air.

The most famous episode of Malta’s history was the Great Seige of 1565. 700 Knights of Malta (the Order of St. John, also known as the Knights Hospitaller) and about 8000 Maltese footsoldiers fought off 40,000 invading Turks commanded by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. It was a near thing, the defenders suffering cruel losses and barely hanging onto their last few fortifications before outlasting their exhausted foes. In the decades after, the wealthy Order of St. John healed the country, pouring money into magnificent churches and other public works, including the sumptuous Co-Cathedral of Saint John. The city of Valletta takes its name from Jean de la Vallette, the Knight commander of the Maltese forces that faced down Suleiman.

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[Above] Nave of the Co-Cathedral of St. John. In addition to its rich decoration and stonework, the cathedral features two paintings by Caravaggio, who was briefly a brother of the order until he fled after spilling the blood of a prominent knight.

Today, Malta is a thriving, friendly business hub and tourist destination. It is also a surprisingly reasonably priced place to live, where you can find a furnished two bedroom apartment in a nice stone building — practically everything on Malta is built from the lovely local stone — for under 100,000 euros. That won’t buy you waterfront; but given that you almost have to try hard to find a place farther than walking distance from the sea, it’s not much of a hardship. Mediterranean warmth means that you pay little for heat in Malta, while the cool stone buildings and ubiquitous swimming pools help you chill in the hottest months.

I should mention that if you want to buy a detached house, you’ll need to bring along a truckload of money. In a country as small and populous as Malta, land comes at a premium, if at all. The overwhelming majority of homes are apartments, townhouses, and maisonettes. (Where you see a “farmhouse” advertised for sale, it’s nearly always an attached house with a tiny yard.) New construction is virtually all multi-family or attached dwellings, and existing detached homes, when they come on the market, go for an order of magnitude beyond an attached home of similar square footage.

Medical services on Malta are excellent, and out-of-pocket payment for routine office visits is cheap compared with the US, though buying into the national health service as an expat is unfortunately not so inexpensive. The country is also statistically one of the world’s safest refuges from violent crime. With regard to food, despite its tiny acreage, Malta manages to produce a nice variety of gorgeous local produce, and grocery prices generally are about average for Europe. Eating out is quite reasonable, and usually very good.

You will pay a lot for a liter of gas. That, along with the narrow, congested roads, is why most cars on Malta are tiny. If you’ve ever wondered why you rarely see any Suzuki Sidekicks on the American road anymore, it’s because they and their older siblings, the Suzuki Samurai, all emigrated to Malta. Maltese owners love their tough little Suzukis not only for their parsimony with gas, but also because they stand up to the potholes, ruts, and washboard ripples of the infamous roads on the islands. In any case, between the small scale of the country and the daunting aspect of most backroads, you won’t be blowing through a tank of gas very quickly.

Quality of life in Malta can be quite good, though where you choose to live will depend a lot on what you enjoy. If you want world-class culture, thriving night life, great shopping, and fantastic multicultural cuisine, the main island is your huckleberry. Just be prepared for lots of traffic, a very high population density, and a dearth of quiet places to get away from it all.

On the other hand, if you value a slower pace of life, less congestion, and more opportunities to explore the outdoors, you’ll opt for Gozo. You’ll still be able to enjoy plenty of fascinating history and beautiful architecture, as well as outdoor cafes and local color — but you’ll also enjoy wide-open vistas out to the sea, and long, quiet walks on deserted trails. And if you buy a place there, you’ll have peace of mind knowing that those lovely open spaces outside the villages will remain unbuilt by law; the Maltese government has wisely recognized the value of maintaining its remaining green spaces, and so it protects them from development.

It would be overselling Malta to say it’s a place that “has everything.” It’s too small for that. If you’re looking for downhill skiing, or theme parks, you’re pretty much out of luck. Golf begins and ends with the 18-hole Royal Malta course. But if you’re looking for the kinds of things Malta offers in abundance — sailing, hiking, fishing, history, culture, beaches, and the rest — you’ll be hard-pressed to find them better anywhere else that mortals can afford.

I can’t wait to go back.