Watching a small village parade in Malta

village parade
I just returned from a week in the small island country of Malta. For our first trip with our nearly two-month old baby, we decided to rent a house outside the village of Xaghra on Malta’s smaller island Gozo. Picking us up from the ferry, our landlady explained how the town was gearing up for the national Victory Day holiday on September 8th as well as the village patron saint’s feast celebration, and each night there would be smaller festivities building up to the main event. Every night we’d walk to the square, choose among the handful of restaurants to eat (with a population of 4,200, it’s among the more cosmopolitan of Gozitan villages), and watch the square fill with people chatting, eating, and playing bingo, as it turned out. We saw girls in outfits that would be considered skimpy in a Miami nightclub flirt on the church steps with boys wearing shirts with religious icons. On our last night on Gozo, the square was more packed than usual and soon we discovered why: a parade was about to start!

%Gallery-133057%The village parade consisted mainly of a marching band and a large statue of the village’s patron saint, Our Lady of Victories, carried by a team of local men, many who had been enjoying a few Cisk beers. The make up of the band’s members was motley but memorable, including a tiny man carrying a drum that nearly dwarfed him, a boy barely in his teens playing among musicians decades older, a pretty young woman in high wedge heels. The band started out in the square, playing various Gozitan and Maltese anthems, before moving down the main road under a rain of confetti. We followed the band along the street until we were stopped in a bottleneck in front of Our Lady of Victories. You do NOT want to get in front of Our Lady, lest you want to be scolded by the man in charge of her and her (increasingly drunken) handlers. We moved aside and let the band continue down the street, leaving a thick carpet of confetti. Every child in town came out to gather bunches of confetti, build forts in it, and throw it at their friends.

As the crowd began to disperse, we stopped at a snack bar where they played a recording of the songs we had just heard, in search of a nightcap. Even a dozen years of living in New York with its legendary parades couldn’t compare to the fun we had at a small Gozitan feast, and this was just a warm up celebration! In New York, you wouldn’t see a child rolling around making confetti angels. In New York, you can’t touch the floats. In New York, you couldn’t buy a magnum of good local wine after hours and be told apologetically that it would cost 4 euro. But in Gozo, a family of Russian/American New York City expats from Istanbul could feel dazzled by a small village feast.

Photo of the day – Bingo in Gozo

photo of the day
I’m going to break with tradition with choosing a Photo of the Day from our Flickr pool and post a photo from on location. I’m currently traveling on the Mediterranean island of Gozo, Malta, staying outside the small town of Xagra (oh, the things we do to bring new destination content to our readers!). Each night, I walk to the town square with my husband and baby and watch as the whole town assembles for eating, gossiping, and apparently, bingo. At first we thought the church was setting up for an important religious ceremony, as hundreds turn out each night and wait expectantly for the church bells to sound at 9pm, but it’s just good old-fashioned bingo. Old ladies, teenagers, and couples arrive with their markers, hoping for their number to be called.

What old-fashioned social events have you seen on your travels? Add your photos to the Gadling Flickr pool and we may choose it for a future Photo of the Day.

Photo of the day – Malta kiosk

malta kiosk

Two Gadling contributing writers are currently planning travel to Malta, so it’s no surprise that the small Mediterranean island republic is on the brain. And it’s also no surprise that, among the many striking images featured on Flickr’s Gadling Group pool pages, my eye was drawn to Flickr user Kumukulanui‘s photograph of this kiosk in St. Julian’s, Malta. This image exudes a rich sense of summer with its blue night sky and atmosphere of relaxed leisure.

Submit your favorite photos to the Gadling Group pool on Flickr. If you’re lucky, we might just pick one of your images to be a future Photo of the Day.

Schengen and the disappearance of European passport stamps

schengen passport
Creative new use for border crossing posts at German/Austrian border.

In the late 1980s, an American spending a summer traveling across Europe with a Eurailpass would see his or her passport stamped possibly dozens of times. With a few exceptions, every time a border was crossed, an immigration agent would pop his or her head into a train compartment, look at everyone’s passports, in most cases stamp them, and move on. Every Eastern Bloc country required visas, some of which could be obtained at the border and others of which had to be applied for in advance.

Today, an American can enter the Schengen zone in Helsinki, fly to Oslo and then on to Amsterdam, proceed by train through Belgium, France, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland, then by bus to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, and then by ferry back to Helsinki before catching a flight to Athens and landing in Greece without once needing to submit a passport to a border guard’s scrutiny.

The development of the Schengen agreement across Europe has altered the geopolitical map of the continent in many ways. For tourists, the development of the Schengen zone has simplified travel by drastically reducing the number of times a passport can be checked and stamped as national borders are crossed.

The Schengen Agreement is named after the town of Schengen in Luxembourg. It was here in 1985 that five countries-Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, West Germany, and France-signed an agreement to essentially create borderless travel between them. A model for this agreement had been created years before by the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), which eliminated border controls back in 1948. The Nordic countries also did away with internal border posts, in 1958.

In 1995, the five original Schengen countries plus Portugal and Spain inaugurated the zone. In 1997, Austria and Italy joined. Greece followed in 2000 and the five Nordic countries joined in 2001. In late 2007, nine more countries joined the Schengen zone; most recently, Switzerland signed up in 2008.

schengen passport
Abandoned border crossing between Slovakia and Hungary.

Today, 22 European countries are part of Schengen. Every European Union country (save the UK, Ireland, Bulgaria, Romania, and Cyprus) belongs. Other members include EU holdouts Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland. The European microstates present a few complications. Monaco’s borders are administered by France, which makes the tiny principality a part of Schengen, while Liechtenstein’s accession, approved by the European Parliament in February, is pending. San Marino and the Vatican are de facto versus official members, while mountainous, landlocked Andorra remains outside of the zone altogether.

There are five EU countries not currently part of the Schengen zone. The UK and Ireland (as well as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands) operate a Schengen-like agreement called the Common Travel Area. Neither country is obligated to join the zone.

Romania, Bulgaria, and Cyprus, however, are all bound by treaty to eventually join. Romania has fulfilled all the criteria for joining Schengen and Bulgaria is close to fulfillment as well. These two countries will accede together, likely later this year. Cyprus presents a more complicated situation given the division of the island between the Republic of Cyprus in the south and the largely unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the north.

With the coming accession of the Western Balkans to the European Union, the Schengen zone will almost definitely continue to grow. Might it one day cover the entire landmass of Europe? Check back in two decades.

[Images: top image Flickr | Mike Knell; middle image Flickr | jczart]

Budget Travel Tips for Europe

budget-friendly travel europePractical, how-to budget travel advice is indispensible. There’s something particularly valuable about travel advice that opposes the emphasis on expensive hotels and other forms of high-end consumption that characterizes the contemporary travel media, perhaps especially in regions like Europe where costs are generally quite high.

Budget-friendly travel in Europe is no impossible dream, and the following sites are good for inspiring shoestring feats, assessing likely costs, and, above all else, disproving the idea that you have to spend hundreds of dollars a day to see Europe well. For some ideas about where to travel affordably in Europe, check out last week’s ten budget-friendly European destinations post.

1. Less Than a Shoestring. Though no longer publishing on a regular basis, the archives of this blog are astoundingly helpful in their low-budget audacity. Particularly useful for anyone scared off at the thought of Europe’s cost index are the blog’s “Baring my Budget” posts, which run through budgets for various short trips in great detail: three nights in Malta for €50 (currently $66); five days in London for £85 (currently $133); four nights in Venice for €91 (currently $120), all departing from Berlin. Costs breakdowns are provided in these “Baring my Budget” posts, as are the freebies encountered along the way. The mention of freebies is particularly helpful, as it reveals how often tourist information, maps, museum admission, and various cultural performances can be accessed free of charge. Though this series ran over two years ago, it is still very relevant.

2. EuroCheapo. Disclosure: I worked as an editor at EuroCheapo for almost three years and continue to do occasional freelance projects for the site. Phew. Glad I got that out of the way. Personal loyalty aside, EuroCheapo really is an enormously helpful resource. It is first and foremost as a hotel review site with useful descriptions of hotels written by trained hotel reviewers. EuroCheapo also edits a great blog full of essential budget-oriented tips penned by correspondents on the ground.

3. Guardian’s budget travel section. To be fair, the Guardian’s budget travel section is good for destinations around the world, though the density of articles on the UK, France, Italy, Spain, and other European countries is impressive. Recent articles that showcase well the newspaper’s creatively open approach to the subject of budget travel include Susan Greenwood’s budget Stockholm journey story, indebted to insider tips provided by a local blogger; a piece on backpacking in the Crimea by Maxton Walker; and Benji Lanyado’s TwiTrips series, for which the author receives tips via Twitter about the city he’s visiting and then liveblogs his discoveries. The most recent TwiTrip series installment sees Lanyado visiting Liverpool.4. Flycheapo. This site felt buzzing and electrified back when Europe’s low-cost airlines were announcing new routes weekly. With all the route cut-backs and cancellations of the last few years, the site sees far fewer regular updates. Nonetheless, Flycheapo is still an essential place to look for route information for inexpensive flights around Europe. The site provides new route news snippets, a route index, an airline index, and a route search, all of which are helpful for figuring out potential itineraries for low-cost air journeys across Europe.

5. Deutsche Bahn. Indispensible for figuring out train itineraries, Bahn.de features Europe-wide train schedules in enthralling detail. Bahn.de is also a much cheaper place for purchasing advance train fares than US-based agents. A very helpful run-down of how much cheaper these fares can be as well as information on how to access Deutsche Bahn sales personnel in English can be found in two posts by the editors of hidden europe magazine, here and here.

(Image: Flickr / vxla)