Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Vietnam Part 1: mopeds and pig heads

"Hanoi's like fucking Beirut" warned the classic Brit Abroad we met towards the end of our trip, whose worldly references seemed to be limited to a Middle Eastern civil war that ended 30 years ago. That's assuming he was comparing Hanoi to the once war-torn streets of the Lebanese capital and not emphasising an abundance of hummus. "Oh, we quite liked it actually" we admitted, before conceding that it's exhaustingly chaotic. And, come to think of it, a bit of baba ghanouj wouldn't go amiss.

Hanoi © Ryan Chapman

Hanoi © Ryan Chapman

Hanoi owes its chaos to the sheer volume of motorbikes, mopeds and scooters. And the alarming enthusiasm with which they're riden. On the morning of Day 1, simply crossing the road is a dauntingly treacherous prospect. By the afternoon of Day 2 you've nailed the technique: stick to a straight line, maintain a consistent pace, and hope for the best. By Day 3 you're playing Spot the New Arrivals as panic-stricken Western faces stare wide-eyed at the constant stream of traffic wondering how on earth they're going to make it to dinner on time. Or indeed, alive.

Even down the narrowest of side streets, lined with market stalls and their bouquets of fresh herbs, mountains of fruit and all the parts of a pig you can think of. Even here, Hanoians on mopeds will come speeding down the alleyway behind you, assuming you'll step aside just in time. The two-wheeler is king and you just have to be okay with that.

Hanoi © Ryan Chapman

There are, of course, plenty of places to escape the relentless buzz of the city. Such as incense-infused temples with their alters bearing offerings to Buddist deities from bottled water to multi-packs of custard cupcakes; restful gardens alive with birdsong; and cafes where you can sample the Hanoian specialty of egg coffee. Now, cracking an egg into your coffee may not sound appealing, and the idea was born out of desperation during a wartime milk shortage, but it's nicer than it sounds. I promise.

Hanoi © Ryan Chapman

Hanoi's centre-piece is Hoan Kiem: a tranquil lake in a sea of mayhem. People of all ages gather on its shores to practice Thi Chi or play friendly games of badminton that quickly turn competitive. Another local past-time, enjoyed mostly by pairs of middle-aged men, is đá cầu (also known as jianzi). Essentially it's football with a shuttlecock. I watched for a while, willing a miss-kick to fall my way but they were all too good to lose control (which is probably for the best, to be honest).

Hanoi © Ryan Chapman
It had been over a decade since I'd done any significant traveling in this corner of the world, so I was more than ready for the unique assault of the senses that only South East Asia can provide. And Hanoi, with its myriad of frantic sights and pungent smells, satisfied the craving. But after a long weekend in the capital it was time to hit the tracks and explore more of Vietnam.

The Reunification Express railway links Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City a thousand miles to the south. The railway was mostly destroyed during the American War but rebuilt following Vietnam's reunification in 1975. Hence the name. The full journey takes around thirty-four hours, but broken up into five or six legs is perfectly manageable. Especially if you book sleeper cabins for the overnight sections. And stock up on the requisite snacks, obviously.

Our first leg from Hanoi to Ninh Binh was the shortest of all with barely enough time for a quick nap and a packet of crisps. The city of Ninh Binh is nothing special, but the surrounding countryside is spectacularly dotted with dramatic karst rock formations towering over lush rice fields and winding waterways. A stunning landscape to explore by boat, bike and boot.

Ninh Binh © Ryan Chapman

It's here in the rural backwaters that we first experienced the general friendliness of the Vietnamese people. That's not to say they were particularly rude in Hanoi, but it's hard to be polite when you're constantly chasing people down on motorbikes. Children in the countryside around Ninh Binh would hurry out of their houses to shout 'hello' as we passed. And the braver kids with slightly more English would ask for our names, before giggling at the response and hiding behind a tree.

In fact, there seemed to be kids everywhere. Even our homestay was run by children. When we couldn't get the shower to work the only person around to ask was a girl of about thirteen. And then her younger sister served us fresh mango for breakfast that she'd grown in the garden. It was then I realised that this abundance of youth was no doubt linked to the coronavirus-related school closures. All the kids in the village were probably bored out of their minds and just saying hello to Westerners for something to do. But at least they did it with a smile.

Ninh Binh © Ryan Chapman

A further eight or so hours south on the Reunification Express - the perfect amount of time for a good sleep, we had naively calculated - is Phong Nha National Park. The area is best known for caves (including the biggest in the world, no less) but as impressive as they are, let's be honest, when you've seen one cave that's kind of enough. Luckily, there's plenty more to do that doesn't involve trying to recall your Year 8 geography class that covered stalagmites and stalactites during which you were distracted by scrawling flirtatious graffiti in the exercise books of mostly disinterested girls sat next to you.

Phong Nha © Ryan Chapman
Locals have got creative with their offerings to tourists in these parts. Whether you want to eat Chicken Bombs in a bomb-themed bar beside a crater formed during an American airstrike, have a flock of ducks peck seeds from in-between your toes, or ride a massive water buffalo named Donald Trump: Phong Nha has you covered.

And from there, we headed to the ancient capital of Hue. But for that you'll have to wait for Part 2...

Hanoi tips: drink egg coffee at Dinh Cafe before and/or after a walk around the lake. Eat bánh mì at Bánh Mì 25 (bánh mì is essentially a savoury filled baguette, but Vietnamese bread is lighter with a  satisfyingly crackly crust). Drink excellent cocktails at The Alchemist.

Hanoi © Ryan Chapman
Ninh Binh tips: stay at Hang Mua Nature Homestay (run by a very welcoming family with two rooms overlooking a tropical fruit garden). Do a boat trip from Trang An and explore the Tam Coc area by bike (we hired bikes from Tam Coc Happy Home). Download the Grab app for taxis to cover the longer distances.

Ninh Binh © Ryan Chapman

Phong Nha tips: cycle out to The Pub with Cold Beer and reward your efforts with their flagship product (beware of the copycat establishment The Knockoff Pub With Cold Beer just around the corner. According to reviews their beer isn't even cold). On the way back swing by the aforementioned Bomb Crater Bar for further refreshment.

Friday, 17 January 2020

Making Ice Cream [music video]

Towards the end of last summer I was part of a small camera crew to squeeze into an even smaller wooden cabin for a shoot on a slice of Hertfordshire farmland. We were there to make the music video for Ice Cream, a single from Irish singer-songwriter Tod Doyle (arguably the best thing to come out of Ireland since Father Ted).

Tod on set.
Me on set.
We shot the video over two days, fuelled by copious amounts of pastries and flapjacks like all good shoots are. However, considering the name of the song there was a disappointing lack of ice cream due to the freezer's close proximity to the cabin's log burner. Melted Cornetto anyone?

Camera porn.
Tod and I had first met in Budapest more moons ago than either of us could reliably remember and we had similarly hazy memories of loose backpacker shenanigans and raucous guitar-led singalongs. He had emerged from the chaos with his Irish folk songs which became anthems of a good few Hungarian summers.

Tod back in the day (Budapest, 2012)

I've since edited the video and it's now live for all to see:

Tod has more new music coming soon so look out for it on your favourite music streaming service (and by that I mean Spotify, obviously). I've been privy to a couple of tracks in the pipeline and I can assure you they're worth the wait.

Friday, 15 November 2019

Noodle in a Haystack

I’ve been asked for Japanese restaurant tips a few times recently. There's so much variety in Japan you could say finding the right restaurant is like trying to find a noodle in a... never mind, here's the list.


Nakiryu - 創作麺工房 鳴龍 (for Michelin Star Ramen)

There are three times as many Ramen houses in Tokyo as there are pubs in London, so picking one is basically impossible. Luckily, the Michelin Man devised a restaurant rating system and has awarded his coveted star to only a select couple. One of them is Nakiryu. 

Nakiryu only holds a handful of people and doesn’t take reservations, so queuing is inevitable. We arrived well before opening and still queued for over an hour on the street. It’s about 25% more expensive than the average Ramen house but the slurp-tastic noodles and broth are well worth the price (and the wait).

Tsukiji Market - 築地市場 (for sea food)

There’s a bit of confusion because the fish market famous for its wholesale auctions has moved somewhere else. But you’re probably not hungry enough for 100 kilos of tuna anyway. 

The open-air market is still there and is a great place to wander around, eat sushi and get freaked out by weird-looking things on sticks (this is a common occurrence in Japan actually - they love weird things on sticks).

Omoide Yokocho - 思い出横丁 (for more weird things on sticks) 

This narrow aroma-filled alleyway is the epicentre of eating weird things on sticks. If you’ve ever wanted to try pig testicals, chicken innards or pickled wasp then this is the spot.


Nikomiya Rokken - にこみ屋六軒 (for Japanese tapas)

All of our absolute favourite restaurants in Japan were izakayas. These are basically Japanese pubs that serve tapas. Some just offer drinks and snacks, but others concentrate more on the food, and some of those ones are incredible.

Nikomiya Rokken was our favourite in Kyoto. It’s slightly off the beaten track, but well worth the detour. Look out for the white lantern and good luck trying to pick a sensible amount of things to order.

Kaiseki (for tradition, innit)

Kyoto is the place to experience kaiseki: a multi-course set menu (up to 15 courses!) served by impeccably presented kimono-clad waitresses in traditional Japanese surroundings. There are several kaiseki places and they’re all eye-wateringly expensive, but some offer cheaper afternoon sittings. I can’t whole-heartedly recommend the one we went to (Gion-Nanba) but that might be because I’m still scarred by the sixth course (turns out I’m not a massive fan of leaves dripping in cod semen).


Onegiya Fukuromachi - おねぎや 袋町店 (for Japanese tapas)

You have to duck through a tiny doorway and then find a cubbyhole for your shoes, but once you’re over the excruciating cultural awkwardness you’re in for a real treat. Especially if you like leeks, because this izakaya specialises in them.

Akamaru - 大手町酒場赤まる (for drinks)

This izakaya is more raucous dive bar than tapas restaurant, but they do serve food if you want a snack. Go for a few pre-dinner drinks, soak up the atmosphere and then go back again later for a night cap or three.

In this and all izakayas across Japan make sure you tuck into the bowls of salty edamame beans. They're great for chopstick practice too.


High Spirits, Fujikawaguchiko-machi (for Japanese tapas)

If you happen to be in this part of Japan then this izakaya is well worth a visit. It's the definition of a fusion restaurant.  Try and reserve a table though because it gets busy. 

And I’ve saved the best until last… Kobe beef!

Holy cow. A medium-rare Kobe beef steak washed down with a glass of red is utterly life-changing. You don’t have to go to Kobe for legit Kobe beef, but why not? If you have a rail pass it’s pretty easy to get to.

There’s a strict Kobe beef grading system from C1 to A5. Make sure you choose a place that does A5 (if budget allows). 

After a lot of research we went to a steak house called Sai-Dining, which was excellent (although they’re probably all excellent in Kobe). We couldn’t quite bring ourselves to drop over £100 each on an A5 fillet, but were more than delighted with our A5 sirloin at almost half the price.


Wednesday, 24 April 2019

The Battle of Waterloo Bridge - in pictures

© Ryan Chapman

It was Day 7 of Extinction Rebellion’s occupation of Waterloo Bridge - one of several London sites targeted by the climate change protest group. The sun was shining, the atmosphere was radiant, but the authorities’ patience was wearing thin.

© Ryan Chapman

While the media can’t settle on whether to deride XR protesters as soap-dodging hippies or middle class do-gooders, the fact is they include both and everything in-between. They are teachers and children; nurses and lawyers. A diverse bunch. United by desperation and motivated by the undeniable urgent need for action.

© Ryan Chapman

Somewhat ironically it was the hottest Easter on record. TV weathermen could barely contain their excitement as they relayed news of soaring Bank Holiday temperatures. And what kind of twisted psychopath doesn’t love a long weekend in the sun? For the literal future of life on earth however, yet another temperature record being broken isn’t exactly news worth celebrating.

© Ryan Chapman

Several hundred people were congregated at the Waterloo-end of the bridge. Slogans were written on the asphalt with multi-coloured chalk and a mini seminar was underway, advising the gathered crowd on what to do in the event of arrest.

© Ryan Chapman

The sounds of acoustic guitars and bongos drifted across the bridge, as various protesters staged singalongs and trays of homemade chocolate cake were passed around and greeted with the kind of smiles only homemade chocolate cake can muster. 

© Ryan Chapman

Arrests were made once every ten or so minutes. There was no aggressive resistance but each protester went floppy like toddlers refusing to be carried, requiring a team of officers to take them away. Each arrest was met with warm applause for the dedication of the individual, and songs of support to the police. “We love you, we’re doing it for your children, police”.

© Ryan Chapman

Here is Waterloo Bridge's very own recycling centre. “But I thought Extinction Rebellion left places in a mess” I hear you grumble. Well, as they say, a lie gets half-way around the world before the truth has even brushed its teeth, or something. And guess what: that photo circulating online of Hyde Park strewn with litter was actually taken after a completely unrelated event and has nothing to do with climate change protesters. Fake news! Big shock!

© Ryan Chapman

In a somewhat surreal turn of events, Chris Packham - of The Really Wild Show fame - was met by cheers as he clambered on top of a bus shelter to give a speech of gratitude. My 8 year old self would be very disappointed to hear that Michaela Strachan was nowhere to be seen.

© Ryan Chapman

Chris Packham’s injection of renewed positivity signalled the start of the police’s fight-back. In their first move to clear the bridge they began the task of removing the jumbled array of pop-up tents and pot plants.

© Ryan Chapman

The police dismantled gazebos to complaints from those sheltering beneath that they would be exposed to direct sunlight. “You shouldn’t have glued yourself to the bloody bridge then” one policewoman snapped back, in the first hint of animosity I’d witnessed from either side all afternoon.

© Ryan Chapman

As more police moved in and it became clear that XR’s week-long occupation of Waterloo Bridge was coming to an end, some protesters swapped placards for brooms to begin the clear-up.

© Ryan Chapman

Whatever Extinction Rebellion’s next move, there are some certainties. 

The lazy, disingenuous and cynical attacks will continue from people with their heads in the sand. You know, the ones that try and claim you can’t possibly care about the future of humankind and go on an airplane.

The other certainty is that the problem will continue getting worse if nothing is done. And while certain lifestyle changes are important, the radical change has to come from the top. And fast.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

The 12 ironies of Brexit

When Alanis Morissette wrote her song about irony she clearly didn’t have much to draw on. If only she’d waited a couple of decades for the gluttony of ironies that have accompanied the Brexit debacle (Some are even more despairing than rain on your wedding day).

Brexit Irony # 1 

The very same people who recoil at the idea of Europeans meddling in our affairs are calling on Italy and Poland to veto any attempt UK Parliament makes to delay Brexit. You either want us in control of our own destiny, or you don't.

Brexit Irony # 2 

Londoners, who wanted it the least, would likely suffer the least. Northerners, who wanted it the most, would likely suffer the most. 

Brexit Irony # 3 

Slogans don’t come much more meaningless than ‘Brexit means Brexit’. It’s still in common use, even though Gove and Johnson - the two key figureheads of the official leave campaign - don’t even agree on what Brexit means, let alone voters.

What do you want for breakfast? Breakfast! What kind of breakfast though? Breakfast means breakfast!

Okaaaaay, get this guy some plastic cutlery and a bib.

Brexit Irony # 4 

Prominent Leave campaigner and British inventor James Dyson has moved his headquarters to Singapore. Curiously, Singapore had just signed a free trade agreement with the EU, affording Dyson all the benefits he encouraged the British electorate to ditch. What a snake. 

I have no doubt that Tim Martin would follow suit and take Wetherspoons to Asia, if only there was a market for pubs that smell of sick. 

Brexit Irony # 5 

A massive part of the Brexit campaign was about tightening up our borders, but the whole thing relies on keeping the Irish border soft. ‘We want to control our borders - but not that one!’ 

Brexit Irony # 6 

The same fervent ‘Rule, Britania!’ flavour of nationalism that fuelled the Brexit campaign has, in turn, increased the chances of the United Kingdom breaking up. Well done, ‘patriots’.

Brexit Irony # 7 

Brexiteers claimed that we must leave the EU because our parliament is no longer sovereign. Today, they bemoan Parliament as it continues to exercise the sovereignty it had all along.

Brexit Irony # 8

The infamous blue passport - one of the only tangible 'benefits' of Brexit - will be... wait for it... made in France. 

Brexit Irony # 9 

The referendum was called by David Cameron with the primary purpose of uniting the Conservative Party. How’s that gone for you, Dave? 

Brexit Irony # 10

Immigrants pay more into the system than they take out. Ergo, they’re literally paying the pensions of the xenophobic retirees who voted Leave hoping to kick them out. 

Brexit Irony # 11 

And if we can’t attract as many EU immigrants we’ll have to find people from further afield to support our ageing population. In fact, to replace all the doctors lost since the referendum we may have to relax visa restrictions. How’s that for taking back control? 

Brexit Irony # 12 

And finally, to bring us bang up-to-date, Theresa May now wants to bring the her deal back to Parliament for a third meaningful vote. She’s hoping enough MPs will have changed their mind, whilst simultaneously ruling out the option of checking to see if the public have changed theirs...

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

The Specials

Throughout the latter half of this year I spent an unexpected amount of time in police cars. But far from being taken into custody, I was shooting a series of films for Cambridgeshire Police. All part of a recruitment drive to attract more Special Constables into the force.

The shoots required several trips across the Fens in all directions and in all weathers. From dog day care to martial arts, I spent a couple of days with each of four Special Constables from across Cambridgeshire: Eloise, Phil, Sara and Stephen. Check out the videos here:





Friday, 30 November 2018

Japan: a country of contradictions

Japan is a place where robots brush shoulders with geishas, ancient Shinto shrines stand in the shadows of skyscrapers and quaint tea ceremonies follow neon-lit shopping sprees. It's chaotic but rigorously ordered. Hyper-modern but strictly traditional.

It's also a land of perfectionists, with unrivalled attention to detail. From squeaky clean streets to heated toilet seats and from trains running on time to a near absence of crime. Kaizen is the relentless pursuit of improvement, and it influences every aspect of Japanese life from factory assembly lines to sushi chefs.

There are a thousand reasons to visit Japan. The temples, the mountains, the food. The people, the hot springs, the history. You'll arrive eager and curious, and leave even more curious still.

The snow-capped peak of Mount Fuji making a brief appearance through the clouds.
Incense burning at a temple in Nikko.
The bamboo groves of Kyoto.

Geisha culture is still mainstream in Kyoto.
To be honest, when choosing a travel destination the colour of its foliage is not usually on my list of priorities. However, having now witnessed a Japanese autumn in all its fiery glory I can see what the fuss is about.

Catching 'peak colour' in every location in a three week trip is logistically impossible. But it didn't stop us trying. Our route through Japan was designed to follow the gradual creep of autumn, maximising our exposure to the brilliant reds and oranges. This essentially meant we traveled from north to south, and generally visited high-altitude areas first. More or less.

Autumn colours around a pond in Nikko.

Autumn colours in a Japanese garden in Nikko.

Autumn colours around Lake Chuzenji.
Before I meander off in all directions, and in a genuine attempt at being helpful, here are five practical tips for a trip to Japan:

1) Invest in a Japan Rail Pass and use the HyperDia app to plan journeys.

2) Get a Japanese sim card so you can use the internet for maps and translations on the go.

3) If you're going in autumn use Japan Guide's online autumn colour reports to plan your itinerary.

4) Don't assume you can use your card everywhere. Surprisingly, lots of places are cash-only.

5) Practice with chopsticks before you go.

Most important though is to be open-minded and embrace the weirdness. You'll find cultural quirks around every corner that will fascinate, bewilder and amuse. Often all at once. And nowhere is that more true than the food.

The food

Choosing something to eat is a daunting prospect, and the choice of vocabulary doesn't help. Thanks to overly literal translations the words 'guts' and 'innards' are scattered liberally across most menus. Squid guts and soy beans, anyone? How about some skewered chicken innards?

But trust me. If you can get past the initial shock (and gag reflex), you're guaranteed to find something delicious. It'll be somewhere between the pig rectum and cod semen.

The best place to sample skewered chicken innards is in Tokyo's Yakitori Lane - a cramped alleyway stuffed with tiny eateries - also known as Piss Alley. During prohibition it was home to many illegal drinking dens, all lacking toilet facilities. Hence the unfortunate nickname.

Japanese pubs, or Izakaya, are a great place to start. Identifiable by paper lanterns hanging at their often unassuming entryways, they are essentially Japanese tapas bars. And because they serve small portions you can be experimental without the risk of being too wasteful. Just in case some of it proves too offensive to your delicate Western palette.

An absolute must for meat-eaters is a trip to Kobe to sample its world famous beef. A Kobe cow, whilst alive, is massaged daily and fed beer to stimulate appetite. Eye-wateringly expensive but mouth-wateringly tasty, the result is simply the finest steak in the world. And when accompanied with a bottle of red, eating Grade A5 Kobe beef is nothing short of a religious experience.

And who in their right mind would visit Japan without gorging on sushi? Or slurping up a bowl of ramen at one of Tokyo's 6,000+ ramen houses? (Just remember, the louder you slurp the higher the compliment to the chef.)

Tsukiji Market is a good place to start if you're looking for fresh sushi.

For uncooked and living animals go and meet the troop of 170 wild Japanese macaque monkeys in Arashiyama, Kyoto.
If you're lucky there will be babies.

The fun

The fact Japan is the birthplace of embarrassing oneself with a microphone tells you all you need to know. Karaoke is the epitome of Japanese enjoyment. In other words, looking a little bit silly is all part of the fun. Like the couples in matching clothes carrying their favourite cuddly toy, or the fully-grown adults reading Manga comics on the train, or the businessmen in suits playing Pokemon in one of the many videogame arcades.

This sense of silliness climaxes at Halloween. Combining a love of dressing up with a fondness of commercial hype, October 31st has become a big deal. Trick-or-treating hasn't taken off - thanks to an ingrained cultural reluctance to burden one's neighbours - but that hasn't stopped the Japanese embracing this American celebration with enthusiasm.

And nowhere is Halloween more enthusiastically embraced than the infamous street party of Shibuya, in the heart of Tokyo's downtown. Hoards of fancy-dress-clad Tokyoites gather to drink saké from paper cups and compare costumes in a sea of selfie sticks.

Probably my favourite.

The feds

Keeping a watchful eye on the rowdiness in Shibuya were Tokyo police, the largest metropolitan police force in the world. But their main focus seemed to be castigating revellers for playing music through portable speakers. You can have fun, but no music! 

Invariably, the guilty DJs cut the music. After all, coupled with the Japanese devotion to flawlessness is an uncompromising respect for law and order. Discipline and obedience are culturally enshrined. And as a result, Japanese society not only calls for clean streets and punctual trains, it demands a zero tolerance to crime. And if that means no music, it means no music.

A plethora of nanny-state rules are rigorously followed, without question and without fail. Don't cross the road unless the man is green; take your litter home with you; no smoking on the street. Japan is certainly not a place for rebels.

Japan is not a place for rebels... unless you're a sacred wild deer in Nara.

The deer in Nara are well loved by tourists (and well fed), but some locals are not so enamoured.
Due to agricultural damage the government are planning a cull to manage numbers. To fight this decision some residents have set-up the delightfully named 'Let’s Make the Deer Population More Sustainable and Enjoy Nara Again Friendship Association'. Or the LMTDPMSAENAFA for short.

Wild deer also roam the island of Miyajima, just off the coast near Hiroshima. 

Thanks mostly to the general obedience of the population, Tokyo has the lowest crime rate of any major city in the world. Which leaves the largest police force in the world with very little to do. Not surprisingly then, petty crimes are being treated with increasing forensic rigour.

Just ask the 71 year-old man who was arrested in Tokyo for scribbling a Hitler moustache on a poster. Or the group of friends arrested for running an illegal taxi because they shared the cost of a hire car. No wonder there are dissenting Japanese voices accusing their country of becoming a police state.

Far from crime: a Japanese garden in Tokyo.

Tokyo at night.
The pursuit of perfection may have had detrimental effects on personal freedoms, but it has to be said: for the average traveler, the feeling of safety is tangible.

So roam the backstreets at night and loosen your grip on your camera strap. Embrace all the glorious oddities of Japan safe in the knowledge there's probably a policeman around the next corner, bored out of his mind, who's got your back.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

How not to falter in Malta

Are you thinking of a trip to Malta the next time you manage to escape your particular version of tragic reality? Here are a few handy tips along with some photos I took with my very own index finger.

San Blas Bay, Gozo © Ryan Chapman

Tip #1: 

Go out-out in Valletta.

We found Valletta's nightlife to be unexpectedly cool. And I mean cool in a cocktail-bars-spilling-out-onto-the-street kind of way, not in a I-think-I-might-need-a-jumper-soon kind of way (though do take a jumper with you just in case, obviously). 

Our highlight was the Cinema Bar where a pianist provided a live soundtrack to old silent films  projected onto the wall, whilst I drank over-priced craft beer and chain-ate complimentary popcorn.

Valletta © Ryan Chapman

Tip #2: 

Don't expect to be blown away by stunning beaches (unless you go to Gozo).

We stayed in Mellieha because it was said to have one of the best beaches in Malta, but Mellieha itself is just a concrete jungle of ugly hotels and apartment complexes near an underwhelming stretch of sand. And don't even get me started on Bugibba. 

The island of Gozo has some far prettier spots. See Tip #3.

Valletta Contemporary, Valletta © Ryan Chapman

Tip #3: 

Gozo is prettier.

A little underwhelmed by what Malta had to offer in terms of scenery, we hired a car and got the ferry over to Gozo (20 minutes). You can drive from anywhere to anywhere on Gozo in less than half an hour on near-empty roads, and - good for us - they drive on the right side of the road (meaning the left side). We saw all four corners of the island in a day and wish we could have stayed longer.

Find the beautiful secluded red sand beach at San Blas and then cross the island for a seafood lunch in the stunning Xlendi Bay. Perfect.

San Blas Bay, Gozo © Ryan Chapman

Xlendi Bay, Gozo © Ryan Chapman

Xlendi Bay, Gozo © Ryan Chapman

Victoria, Gozo © Ryan Chapman

Tip #4: 

Visit the Lascaris War Rooms.

All I knew about Malta's involvement in World War II came from a brief summary on the BBC's World War II in Colour series (which is on Netflix now by the way, and is brilliant). It turns out that the George Cross awarded to Malta for the courage of its people was well-earned, and a trip to the War Rooms in Valletta will reveal why.

The defence of Malta from wave after wave of attacks from Axis air forces was orchestrated from here, as was the Invasion of Sicily. Wait for a guided tour and have it all dramatically re-lived. Cross your fingers and hope that Stefan is your guide because he's an incredible goosebump-inducing storyteller. 

Before anyone could beat him to it he finished the tour by saying "I know, I know. If only I was your history teacher". He knew everyone was thinking it.

Lascaris War Rooms, Valletta © Ryan Chapman

Tip #5:

The food is incredible.

It's an over-used compliment and one I think is rarely justified when applied to entire countries,
however the food in Malta is incredible. For whatever reason, the bar is set very high. We ate at some average-looking 'this'll do' kind of places and were super impressed with almost everything. We also ate at some very highly-rated places and were never disappointed.

Our overall favourite was Rebekah's in Mellieha. This friendly little place is a Michelin Star waiting to happen. It's fairly priced for what is exceptional food and they even offer a pick-up service if you're staying near-by. Winning.

Valletta © Ryan Chapman
Gozo sunset © Ryan Chapman

To conclude, any trip to Malta should include at least a day exploring Gozo; at least a day and night in Valletta; and some budget set aside to eat really, really well.