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Nancy's and Adrienne's fabulous 12 days in Malta - A Trip Report


May 24th, 2004, 05:58 PM
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Nancy's and Adrienne's fabulous 12 days in Malta - A Trip Report

This trip report was a collaborative effort between Nancy and myself. Nancy voted me the designated writer and she corrected my errors and told me what I had left out. So, in essence, we have a symbiotic relationship - I'm the worker bee and she's the boss!!

Malta Photos are on the web: http://piero.home.att.net

Malta is a word that has come up periodically throughout my life. As a teenager, Maltese crosses were popular and indeed, at one time, I owned and wore one, not really understanding anything about Malta as a nation nor even knowing where Malta was, except that it was "someplace far away." The Maltese cross I wore, more as a fashion statement then through any knowledge of the island, was tied to the Knights of Malta, a seemingly romantic idea.

Every once in a while I would come across references to Malta or the mention of Malta from people who had been there. Everyone I met who had visited Malta loved it. What's not to like. It's a Mediterranean climate, it's exotic enough to an American to represent those alluring far-off lands one dreams of as a child, it's historic, small, and accessible. There's no language barrier.

Because of a love of Paris I was exchanging emails with Nancy, another Fodors' poster. We learned that we both had had trip plans to go to Malta which didn't happen. And, we were both planning on going with Grand Circle Travel. After various emails we took the plunge and booked the trip! Malta...here we come...April 26 to May 10, 2004.

Reference books were the Blue Guide, Lonely Planet, and Rough Guide. Of course, the Fodors forum and its contributors who had been to Malta were the oracle. Thanks Fodorites for the lovely information found here!

For a flavor of Malta I recommend the following fiction set in Malta during WWII:

The Brass Dolphin by Joanna Trollope
The Kappillan of Malta by Nicholas Monsarrat
The Jukebox Queen of Malta by Nicholas Rinaldi
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May 24th, 2004, 06:06 PM
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Reflections on Grand Circle Travel

I usually travel independently but for this trip chose to go with a group since the cost was approximately the same as traveling independently and the tour gave lots of free time.

The program was very well run. We had a program director, Stuart, who was available to us 24/7 via his cell phone. Of course he traveled with the group on sightseeing excursions and during our "free days" he was at his hotel desk twice a day to help us. He organized additional trips that weren't listed in the program and had a great sense of humor. It was a pleasure having Stuart as our program director.

Our local guide, Helenea, was extremely knowledgeable and personable. She told us that she had wanted to be a tour guide since she was a young girl and studied 4 foreign languages in school to prepare herself for her career. She was perfect for the job.

First Impressions of Malta

Malta is beige. I normally don't look out of the plane window but flying over the Maltese archipelago I watched enthralled. First you pass Gozo which looks partly green and sparsely inhabited from the air. Then little Comino with its 3 inhabitants, and finally the island of Malta with more buildings and roads and less greenery. The drive from the airport shows beige buildings and a beige landscape broken up by prickly pear cacti and the occasional small trees and some shrubs.

The climate is dry and windy. I brought lots of moisturizer with me and used lots of it; I adjusted to the lack of humidity after a few days. Outside the Valletta and Sliema areas there is little traffic. Sliema is especially congested as are the entrance roads to Valletta and the road from Sliema to St. Julian's.

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May 24th, 2004, 06:12 PM
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Some General Malta Information

The Romans named the island Melita, meaning honey, because of the quantity of honey they found there. Malta is a derivation of the Roman name.

Malta is an ancient land with the earliest evidence of humanity dating between 5,200 to 4,000 BC. In spite of its long history, Malta has only been independent since 1964. It's been settled and ruled by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Arabs, French, and British.

The island is small - approximately 17 miles by 9 miles. There are no rivers or lakes. Drinking water is desalinated from the sea or captured on top of the flat-roof buildings. There's no grazing land so livestock are kept in sheds rather than in fields. It was a bit strange to see farmland without animals. During the 12 days on Malta I saw 2 sheep in a field next to our hotel on Gozo.

Beaches are mostly rock or shingle. We saw 2 sand beaches; Mellieha Bay and Golden Bay with its yellow sand. Both beaches are located in the northern part of the island. Diving and snorkeling are popular sports and Malta is noted for the diving.

Since green land is scarce there's a law that no new buildings can be constructed on areas designated as green.

The Malti language is Arabic based (60% to 70%) with the remainder Romance based; the alphabet is Latin. There are 2 genders ? masculine and feminine (no neuter) and adjectives always follow nouns. In the 1930s Malti became the national language. Prior to this Malti was, and sometimes still is, thought of as a working class language so there is some aversion to learning Malti by affluent families. The island's official languages are Malti and English; by requirement, both are taught equally in schools. There are 30 letters and no letter Y. X is pronounced like SH, Q at the beginning of a word is silent, as is GH at the beginning and in middle of words.

95% of Maltese are Catholic. There is no divorce in Malta. However, if you are married outside Malta and divorced outside Malta then you are considered unmarried by Maltese rules. Churches require shoulders and knees to be covered but no one enforced this rule.

Cats are everywhere. They all looked well fed and well taken care of. I never saw registration tags on any of the cats. I also think they're all related since almost all of them have some ginger color to their fur.

The currency is the Maltese Lira, commonly referred to as the pound. Euro introduction will be in 2008. The exchange rate on my ATM card is $2.86:1LM.

Limestone is Malta's only natural product. It's a yellow/orange color because the Sirocco blows sand from the desert and the wind and rain cause the sand to stick to the porous limestone, creating a warm color. You can tell which buildings are fairly new since they are a lighter color.

Buses go everywhere and so do the cranky bus drivers! All our rides were 15 cents. The bus drivers will make change for you, however your change is bound to be in what I termed the "punishment pennies." Anytime I didn't have exact change I was sure to come away with a handful of pennies. Bus rides can be pleasant or wild and wooly. We had a spine splitting, bone crunching 17 minute ride from Mdina to Valletta on a bus with absolutely no springs. It was painful. My butt left the seat 3 times. The driver told us it was 25 minutes to Valletta; he didn?t tell us he was looking to break the record.

Then there was what Nancy termed "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" after the ride at Disneyland. It was the last bus from Valletta that night and we thought it might be our last ride ever. I'm not sure the driver understood that there were 4 wheels on the bus and he should make use of all 4 simultaneously.

Schedules are erratic. If you start at a depot, such as Valletta, there are hoards of people wandering around looking for the next bus to Sliema. The buses are numbered but without a destination marking. There are bus drivers sitting in buses looking as though they?re waiting for passengers but then they tell you to find another bus - they?re not leaving. There's no way to tell which bus is leaving next so you just keep walking around asking bus drivers if they?re leaving. At the end of the afternoon there's lots of people doing this. It's chaotic.

Buses take off when they're full and the driver doesn't care if you?re standing on the first step when he decides to go. I learned this lesson the hard way as he started off with me on the step. They don't make every scheduled stop. If the driver doesn't feel like stopping he doesn't, even when we asked him to. It's best to pull the bell or push the stop button if you know when your stop is coming up. If you don't know that your stop is next you're in trouble! It might be a long walk.

Our stay was especially exciting since Malta joined the EU on May 1 with lots of fireworks and other special activities during the week. Many museums in Valletta (capital city) stayed open until 8:00 pm during EU accession week. The week ended with two additional evenings of spectacular fireworks set off in the Grand Harbour.
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May 24th, 2004, 06:50 PM
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Trip Report

Tuesday, April 27

Most of the day was spent traveling. We connected in London with an Air Malta flight and arrived in Malta around 3:30. Our program director (hereinafter referred to as Stuart) met us with the bus and Marco, our driver, whisked us to the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Sliema. Sliema is where lots of tour groups stay. It's easily accessible to large tour buses and to Valletta, the capital city and the hub for most public buses.

Nancy and I had never met although we had emailed each other for six months prior to the trip and discussed lots of travel topics (should we wear matching hot pink jogging suits and do we need to bring our own washcloths) and shared personal information about ourselves, families, thoughts on life. Our one phone conversation was an hour and a half a few days before leaving.

Nancy BEGGED me to mention our mix up at Heathrow. I was going to keep quiet about this and not expose her publicly, but I bow to my editor and will reveal all.

We planned to meet at the Air Malta ticket counter at LHR (my flight arrived at 6:30; Nancy's at 8:15 in another terminal). To get to the Air Malta ticket counter in the main terminal I bypassed the "transiting flights" option and chose "passport control." This meant standing in line, sweating profusely, for 45 minutes to get into the main terminal but I made it. The immigration officer asked how long I'd be in the UK and looked at me oddly when I responded: "2 hours." He tried to get me to go through the "transiting flights" door but I stood firm...I had to get to the Air Malta ticket counter. I found our meeting place, bought a Starbucks, and wandered around waiting until it was time to meet Nancy.

At 10:00 I still hadn't found Nancy and was forced to vacate my standing space at the Air Malta ticket counter to go to the gate. I sat down at the gate and shortly after someone approaches and asks if I'm Adrienne. It's Nancy...hooray! We finally meet! It seems that Nancy met Ron (our frequent dinner companion on the tour) on the flight from Chicago. They chose the "transiting flights" option and were sitting in a pub swilling beer for several hours!!! (Well, a slight exaggeration; maybe an hour.) Way to go Nancy and Ron!!

We had enough time to get to our rooms, unpack, and freshen up before our cocktail half hour followed by dinner. I believe in being fashionably (15 minutes) late for cocktails so I strolled in to find everyone else seated and listening to what the program director was saying. I didn't realize it was a working cocktail thing and I was a bit embarrassed and of course only front row seats were left! Oh well. That's the last time I was late for anything on the tour. I learned tour etiquette quickly!

Dinner was buffet and the usual thing. No need to go into detail here since most of it looked mediocre.

Wednesday, April 28

The hotel served a wonderful buffet breakfast. Everything you could want. Most of it was quite good. Some of the more unusual items included chocolate sauce for the French toast (very yummy) and savory Maltese pastries (called pastizza), semicircular filled with either mushy peas or cheese. I tried the cheese filled one and it was quite good.

After breakfast Stuart met with us to give us the new itinerary, explain the optional tours, and collect our sign up sheets. Afterwards we took a short orientation walk of Sliema to see local stores, supermarket, bus stop, internet café, etc. We ended at the harbour and we were to meet back at the hotel after lunch. Nancy, Kay, and I stayed at the harbour to eat ice cream for lunch. We spotted the ice cream truck and overpaid for not very good ice cream. After that we avoided the ice cream trucks.

That afternoon we took an included tour of the three cities (Senglea, Cospicua, and Vittoriosa) and Floriana. These towns are just outside Valletta. After a drive through Senglea, Cospicua, and Floriana we saw the Malta Experience, an audio visual history of Malta from prehistory to present day. It was a recap of everything I'd read about Malta. If time is short and you've done some reading about the country it could be skipped. The visual quality was not very high and the audio was very loud.

Next was the Maritime Museum in Vittoriosa, located by the harbor. The building was originally a Knight's arsenal and then beginning in 1841 it became a Navy bakery, supplying bread to the troops for 100 years. The building lay idle between WWII and 1992 when it became a museum.

We ended the afternoon with a walking tour of Vittoriosa, with its small, narrow streets and colorful houses. I love door knockers and there were lots to be found in Vittoriosa. The first home of the Knights of St. John was here; there are signs showing where each Knight's post was located.

Dinner was at La Vigna in Sliema, near the hotel. We were given three meal vouchers to use at seven different restaurants in Sliema or Valletta. I had lamb brochette which was tough but the others chose the fish and said it was delicious. After dinner I tried some Maltese liquore (I let the waitress choose which one). It was Madlien, slightly herby, like Strega, but very light.

Thursday, April 29

Nancy and I took an early bus to Valletta (about 20 minutes) to see some sights before meeting the tour group in the afternoon. We saw St. Paul's Cathedral (Anglican) with its neoclassical design and Corinthian columns.

Manoel Theatre (man well). This is the third oldest theatre in Europe. They deem the acoustics "perfect," aided by two artesian wells filled with rain water. The water helps the acoustics by absorbing echoes. Following our guide's short talk within the seating area we went into the adjoining small museum. There were a few costumes, paintings of stage sets and photos of actors, musicians, and conductors. There were three original special effects items; a wind tunnel, a thunder widget that was rolled along the wooden floor emulating thunder, and a tall, narrow rain box into which lead balls were dropped for the sound of rain.

The dome that's part of the Valletta skyline is the Basilica of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. The interior is limestone with bas reliefs and deep red/orange ocher marble pillars. Over the altar is a canopy, suspended on four ocher marble pillars. From the outside, the dome looks round; from the inside it?s elliptical.

St. Paul's Shipwreck Church, built by the Jesuits in 1639, stands on the site of a much smaller, plainer Carmelite church. Inside it's lavish with chapels, frescoes, and marble tombs in the floor. Its relic is St. Paul's wrist, mounted in a jeweled reliquary on a portion of the post, said to be part of the post on which he was beheaded.

We tried to go into the Craft Center but it, and many churches, closed in the afternoons.

The bombed out opera house is just to the right of the city gates and is now a parking lot. I took a look at it and wished the town had made a garden within the shell as was done to a bombed church in London.

Lunch at Caffé Cordina in Republic square. They have a lovely outdoor terrace although service can sometimes be slow. The tables are in rows and each row is served by one person. After the first time we learned to watch for a waiter who was attentive and speedy before we chose a table. Sandwiches on foccacia are good and filling, there's a Ben and Jerry's take out window, and the café lattes are great. Beware the ice cream menu since these are pre-packaged, incredibly small no matter what the picture looks like, expensive, and not very tasty. Nancy was extremely disappointed with the profiteroles - they were hardly edible!!

We met the tour group by the city gates at 2:15 and toured the Armoury and Grandmaster's Palace (now the seat of Parliament and the President's official residence) state rooms with the gorgeous Gobelins tapestries.

St. John's Co-Cathedral (so named because it shares a Bishopric with the cathedral in Mdina) has carved stucco walls that were once gilded but are now so dirty you can?t see the gold. A project has begun to clean the walls and we watched a gentleman on a scaffold for a while, cleaning one area. The one small wall that he's working on shows most of its gold and is remarkable.

The barrel vaulted ceiling is frescoed with scenes from the life of John the Baptist. Each row of panels is separated by carved and gilt relief on white wood. The floor is magnificent ? Knights's tombs in inlaid marble. There's a book, soon to be published, about the tomb covers with a history of each Knight. The Grand Master Knights's tombs, marble panels with sculptures over them, are within the chapels. St. John's museum contains Caravaggio's painting of "The Beheading of St. John."

A short walk to the Upper Barrakka Gardens, recently reopened. Fabulous views over the harbour, although very windy and cold.

Dinner with Nancy, Ron and Kay at Ta' Kolina, along the Sliema waterfront. Good meal, however the vegetables were frozen. Octopus stew, rabbit stew, and beef bragioli.

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May 24th, 2004, 07:18 PM
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This is great since it may be the closest thing I'll get to visiting Malta myself, for various reasons. As you might know, contemporary philosopher Edward de Bono (I must have at least five of his books) comes from Malta.

Odd, he's never mentioned the Maltese bus drivers.....
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May 24th, 2004, 08:17 PM
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Loved it! We're leaving for Malta in 2 days (connecting LHR) - thanks for posting-Malta sounds like a place to experience, not just visit !
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May 24th, 2004, 08:31 PM
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Thanks for posting a trip report from someplace unusual. If I read another trip report about my first one week trip to London or Paris, I will scream.

I will put Malta on my list.

So many places, so little time.
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May 24th, 2004, 09:10 PM
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Adrienne (and editor Nancy, too!) thanks for the lovely report so far. I'm getting homesick. (There has GOT to be a better word for that feeling of wanting to go back to a place where you felt as if you could stay when you were there. Phew, convoluted--sorry...)

Back to the journal!
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May 25th, 2004, 02:53 AM
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Friday, April 30

Northern Malta Tour. On the northern coast road are 13 square and squat observation towers built by a Spanish Grand Master in the 17th century to watch for approaching enemy.

We pass through Bugibba, a resort town similar to Sliema; hotels, casino, summer residences. The island's desalination works are here. Then by St. Paul's Bay, the location attributed to St. Paul's shipwreck. The Biblical reference can be found in Acts 28.

We arrive at our first destination, Marian Sanctuary. The statue on the church façade is St. Paul with a viper. The first dwellings and places of worship were caves. This church, partially built into the rock, resembles a cave with the nave's barrel vaulted ceiling and an altar area appearing like another cave chamber.

Over the altar, behind filigree grillwork, is an image of the Madonna and Child, painted on a rock and attributed to St. Luke. Over the entrance to the altar is a mosaic of Mary, flanked by the archangels. The background of the mosaic is gold. The ceiling frescoes, forming a border around the altar, are the bishops of Carthage who came to Malta around 400 AD.

The marble walls in the nave are shades of brown and ivory and beautifully patterned by cutting on the cross section, reminiscent of Gozo glass. The only stone indigenous to Malta is limestone, used in the construction of all Maltese buildings. Most marble on the island comes from Italy.

The wooden, carved Stations of the Cross are on the archways of the chapels. The arched chapels further create the cave-like appearance of this church.

Below the church is a mass grave that can be viewed through a glass pane set in the floor to the right side of the church.

There are many caves in the Mellieha area that were used as living quarters as late as the 1930s when the British built apartments and moved people out of the caves. During WWII, the caves afforded refuge from the incredible bombings the Maltese suffered.

The Mellieha area is quite rocky with lots of cacti. This area is one of Malta's high points and the soil is not as fertile as it is in the valley. The cacti on Malta are mostly prickly pear and are used to make Bajtra, a Maltese liquore. The leaves are used to make moisturizer.

There are many fertile fields in Manikata since the earth is rich with clay. Water is drained through the porous soil, captured in artesian wells, and used for irrigation. Malta grows an abundance of, and exports tomatoes, potatoes, and oranges. Disused quarries have become citrus groves.

The name Mosta comes from Arabic and means center. The town is just about in the center of Malta. The church is dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin and known for its unsupported dome, the fourth largest in Europe, with a diameter of 39.6 meters. The church's interior, modeled after the Pantheon, is neoclassical with blue walls in honor of the Blessed Virgin. The statue of Mary, to the right of the door as you face out, is carried through the town each feast day by 6 men. The honor of carrying the statue is inherited, mostly from father to son.

During WWII, when the bomb pierced the dome, there were 300 people inside the church preparing to celebrate Mass. It fell to one side of the church, missed hitting everyone, and never detonated. The original bomb was jettisoned into the sea; there is a replica of the bomb in the church gift shop.

Naxxar (pronounced Na Shar) ? Palazzo Parisio, a 19th century Baroque home with a lovely formal garden. The 20 foot balcony rail is from a single piece of marble. This rail is the third piece that was quarried as the first two broke before they were installed. Symmetry is important to the palace's design and to that end the first floor landing contains two doors opposite the stair. The door on the left is real, the door on the right is false. It is carved into the stone and painted the same color as the real door.

At 5:00 we had a 1.5 hour lecture on the Malti language, given by a Maltese teacher.

Dinner at La Vigna

This was the eve of the EU accession. The country was fairly evenly divided on the vote to join the EU; 47% against, 53% for. There was a big fireworks display in the Valletta Grand Harbour at midnight to mark the event. Valletta closed to private car traffic at 5:30pm and the buses and ferries were running all night continuously to and from every part of the island.

Two people in our group (Gloria and Leong) chose to go into Valletta for the fireworks. They left the restaurant at 9:00 to catch a bus. They waited an hour for a bus (the lines for the ferry were too long to hope for a ferry ride) and got lucky. There was an empty bus going the opposite way that turned around and picked up waiting people. Gloria and Leong also were lucky coming home from Valletta. They found an empty bus right away. There were stories of people waiting 2 and 3 hours for a bus home.

They said they could only see part of the fireworks since they were shot off on the harbour side nearest to Valletta instead of on the opposite side where they could be more easily seen. I watched from my hotel balcony and saw most of the display since they were launched very high. They were spectacular! Simultaneously with the fireworks was a laser light display. What a wonderful sight.

Saturday, May 1

May Day. Many shops were closed but most Valletta museums stayed open until 8:00 for EU accession week. Nancy and I went into Valletta early and managed to see two churches that close at noon. We slipped into St. Barbara (Republic Street) just after Mass but had only a few minutes there. We walked by St. Francis of Assisi (also on Republic Street) and again had only a short time here between Mass and closing. This church has pink and two-tone blue walls, marble chapels, an ornate pulpit with bas reliefs, a frescoed dome with scenes from St. Francis' life, and inlaid marble tombs in the floor.

The post office was specifically open until noon to sell First Day Covers for the EU accession. I bought 2 and some stamps for a friend who collects. We checked the Craft Center again but it was closed.

Fine Arts Museum. We were the only two people in the museum. It's not a terribly interesting collection of paintings. There's one Turner, one Tiepolo, a few Tintorettos and a painting of the Martyrdom of St. Agatha. The Allegory of Malta was loaned to the Archeology Museum for a special exhibit. Other than one spectacular Flemish painting I'd say give it a miss in favor of other things.

A café latte at Caffé Cordina before meeting Ron and Kay at the Malta Labour Party restaurant, on Republic Street, for lunch. It's on the first floor of a building and Nancy went upstairs to check it out. She reported that the restaurant did not look very nice, although the meals are quite inexpensive since it's subsidized by the Labour Party. We all decided the weather was too perfect to eat indoors so back to Caffé Cordina for lunch.

After lunch we slowly made our way to the War Museum, stopping to look at the exterior of Fort St. Elmo, which was closed. The War Museum contains photos of bombed Malta, medals, a plane, German Army memorabilia, and a one-man torpedo boat. Our program director gave us a great article on Operation Pedestal, the convoy bringing fuel and food to Malta during WWII. Even though I knew the outcome, the story was so moving I was almost crying at the end, rooting for those ships to get safely into harbor so Malta, with only two months supply of food and fuel, wouldn't have to surrender. The photos in the War Museum combined with the Operation Pedestal story, the books I had read set during WWII, and the bombed opera house completed a picture of WWII Malta.

Back to modern times...we took the ferry back to Sliema rather than the bus. It was a long walk (about 15 minutes at a brisk pace) from the War Museum to the ferry dock and we had to stop a couple of times to ask for directions. From the museum you proceed along the water front (that much we could figure out). Since we were above the water we needed to go through a tunnel. The tunnel entrance was hidden and of course, in true Maltese fashion, there were no signs to the tunnel. We did see a street going downward into seemingly nothing and that was the entrance to the foot tunnel to the harbor.

Since the ferries only run every 30 minutes we were trying to catch the next one so we didn't have to hang around. As we approached some cafes we stopped to ask where to buy tickets. There's a small roped area with what looks like a lectern. Apparently this is where you buy the tickets. When the ferry comes in someone from the ferry brings a cash box and sells tickets for the next run. Try to get at the front of the ticket line to get a seat outside in the front of the boat. It's only a 10 minute ride across the Marsamxett Harbour from Valletta to Sliema. The ferries run every half hour each way - from Sliema to Valletta 8am to 6pm on the half hour; from Valletta to Sliema 7:45am to 6:15pm on the quarter hour.

Dinner at La Vigna (again).

(more to come...)
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May 25th, 2004, 08:23 AM
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Sunday, May 2

A half day included tour followed by a home hosted lunch! Off to Rabat which takes its name from the Arabic word meaning "suburb." It's a suburb of Mdina (pronounced Em Deena). There's a Sunday market and the Empire Crafts Center (small) containing typical Maltese crafts (glass, filigree jewelry, and the usual souvenir items).

On the way to Rabat we passed through Qormi (pronounced Or Me), a population of 23,000 people with 65 bakeries. A tradition in Qormi was for the towns people to use the bakery ovens to cook their Sunday dinner. They would bring their prepared roasts to a bakery, put them in the oven, go to Mass, and then fetch their dinner and carry it home. The bakeries used wood to fire the ovens and the people liked the flavor of meat cooked that way.

Under Rabat are two acres of catacombs in which the present town is built. Most of the catacombs are now closed and filled in.

Our first stop was St. Agatha's crypt. St. Agatha spent three months in this cave before returning to Sicily. The beautiful frescoes inside the crypt are painted in the Greek style in the 15th and 16th centuries. The 13 frescoes represent St. Agatha and are votive offerings. They were restored in the late 19th century by the Sliema Lions Club. The frescoes had been vandalized by the Turks who scraped the faces off the saint's images; these faces could not be restored since the paint had been totally removed, leaving only bear rock.

There's a second chamber to the crypt with no lighting and a very uneven floor. If you have a flash light you can enter it to see a small painted ceramic tile on the right wall of the crucifixion, an urn and bowl in a wall niche surrounded by tiles and two other painted tiles flanking an altar.

Mass is occasionally celebrated in St. Agatha's crypt.

In St. Paul's catacombs we saw agape tables, used for the repast celebration after a burial. They?re shaped like an Omega, the last letter of the Greek alphabet, representative of the Last Supper or the end of life. The bones from this catacomb were removed during WWII and placed into mass graves in Rabat so people could take refuge in the tombs during bombing.

We then had some free time near the center of Rabat to shop in the Empire Crafts Center, or see the market and church. There was a political rally in the square in front of the church. I couldn't understand what the fellow was saying as he spoke Malti but he was quite passionate.

Next up - San Anton Gardens - one of the largest public gardens on Malta. These gardens belong to the Palace, home of Malta's president. You can't tour the palace (built by the French knight, Antoine de Paule in 1620 and enlarged in 1623 when he became Grand Master), but the gardens are open to the public. Every time I saw gardens and flowers on Malta I was just delighted. It made such a change from the limestone and almost barren rock landscape. There were fountains and ponds, birds and turtles, and borders of pansies.

We left the tour bus and took mini vans in groups of six or eight to our home hosted lunches. This is a typical part of Grand Circle tours, you join a local family for a home cooked lunch in their house. Nancy and I were very lucky to be assigned to the home of Josette and Paul. They were relaxed and casual and used to entertaining with a minimum of fuss. They often board European students coming to Malta to learn English. They gave us such a warm welcome and such a wonderful lunch.

This is the only meal I'm going to describe in the trip report as it's the only meal that was truly special.

Their son, Simon, and their friend Etienne joined us at the large square table in the kitchen so there were 12 of us. We began with a wine toast. Josette pulled a dish from the oven that appeared to be macaroni pie (timpana). It was. Pasta, similar to penne, with meat sauce, baked in a short crust pastry with sesame seeds. I was excited to taste this dish since I hadn't seen it served in restaurants. I remarked on this and was told that you can buy timpana cold in patisseries and either eat it that way or heat it at home.

Josette served us huge portions but as I (and I think everyone else) thought this was the entire meal that was fine. We passed the plates around the table and Paul followed with a gravy boat of bolognaise sauce which he liberally poured on the timpana. It was delicious and I ate every bite. I noticed everyone else licked their plates clean as well. Gosh I was full and still anticipated perhaps a small salad and dessert. We all chatted to each other between courses.

I looked toward Josette and saw more hot dishes on the table. More food? The next course was beef bragioli (another typical Maltese dish), sliced baked potatoes with onions and fennel seed, and cauliflower fritters. Josette wanted to serve us 2 large bragioli each but I think most of us took only one. Oh boy - was I going to be able to step up into the mini van and crawl toward my seat at the back after this meal?

Goat cheese next, either plain or peppered, served with Maltese crackers, similar to water crackers. Good thing the slices were small.

Big, big cannoli for dessert with candied fruit, honey, and chocolate chips. I ate every bite; it was delicious.

After the cannoli another dessert appeared - trifle. Could I possibly say no and insult my hosts? Never. Trifle is one of my favorite desserts. This was not like any trifle I?ve ever had. It contained jelly and chocolate custard. Another winning course!

I used some moderation (ha ha) and passed on the coffee and tea.

What a great meal and what wonderful hosts. =D>

We certainly didn't need another meal that day so Nancy, Kay, and I took the free casino shuttle that stops at the local hotels and went to the casino at the Westin Dragonara Hotel in St. Julian's. This is one of three casinos on the island. We were told we needed passports to enter the casino but the casino rep at our hotel said we could use copies. Nancy and I had our original passports; Kay brought a copy. Guess what...Kay couldn't get in with a copy. She walked around the area for an hour waiting for the next shuttle and went back to the hotel. Nancy and I played the poker slots; she lost 5LM, I lost 7LM. We thought we could get a 9:30 shuttle back to the hotel but the next run was at 10:30. We decided to take a cab for 2.50LM since it was less money than we'd leave in the casino in an hour!

Monday, May 3

Temple Day. We drove through Paola (Pow La) on the way to Tarxien Temple (Tar Shin). Paola was founded by Antoine de Paule, one of the Grand Masters, and the town is named after him. Paola is the home of the Malta prison and the Hypogeum (more about that later).

Temple culture revolved around human and agrarian fertility. The temples all have the same structure; a main doorway, in post and lintel style, with a central passageway, flanked by semi circular apses. A niche with an altar is at the far end from the door. On either side of the door, outside the temple, are what appears to be stone benches where the common people waited for the priest to emerge to collect their animals for sacrifice. Temples were for the priests, not for ordinary people.

You can easily see how Catholic churches are built in the same architectural style as prehistoric temples with the altar at the far end from the main door and side chapels similar to the temple apses.

Outside the temples are round stones, used as rolling stones - forerunners of the wheel.

Tarxien temples (there are three of them), constructed between 3,000 and 2,500 BC were discovered in 1914 silted under three meters of earth. In the center of the temple is the stone of the eternal flame. There are some stones with carvings of animals and spiral reliefs, perhaps signifying eternity. Many of the original stones have been taken to the Archaeology Museum to preserve them. The decorative stones at the temple site are copies. Much of the temple stones have been covered with gypsum to protect the porous limestone.

Hagar Qim (Adge-ar Eem) is 100 years older than Tarxien. Hagar means stones, Qim means adoring or worshiping. It was not silted over as was Tarxien and has been partly reconstructed. The megaliths are up to 5 meters high and 3 meters wide.

The altars are decorated with spiral designs (like Tarxien) and rows of pitting (original altars and friezes are in the Archaeological Museum). Near the entrance is a small table with a concave top and wheat sheaves engraved on the sides, probably used for grinding wheat.

These temples are older than Stonehenge or the Pyramids. It's truly amazing to see what people with rudimentary instruments could create 5,000 years ago.

Outside the Hagar Qim temples are carob trees, low and bushy, brought to Malta from Spain. Carob syrup is used for coughs. The white pulp from the crushed seeds is used as ice cream emulsifier, makeup base, and to make vinyl. The carob seeds, which look like dark lentils, are always the same size, regardless of the size of the fruit. The Greeks used the seeds for weight measures - each seed is a Karat. European shoe sizes are measured in the number of Karats needed to achieve a length, i.e., 36, 40, etc.

Next stop Marsaxlokk (Mar Sa Shlock). The word Marsa means harbor and Xlokk is the word for Sirocco. The town is full of colorful fishing boats, called luzzus, with the eyes on the outside and holy images on the inside, keeping the fishermen protected by both pagan and Christian images. We're here for lunch at Harbour Lights restaurant on the bay (more tour-type food) and time for a stroll through the town and the market. The daily market is small; it's the Sunday market that people flock to.

Dinner at Mamma Mia in Sliema. Huge portions of pasta and salads. Good, thin-crust pizza. Two people can easily share a meal. Cost was about 5LM each with water and wine.

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May 25th, 2004, 08:34 AM
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Thanks so much Adrienne/Nancy for a great thorough report and I agree, it's nice to read an off the beaten path adventure.
Have you been to Corsica?
I, too remember my Malteese cross. It was very old and I passed it on to a friend who stil wears it after al these many years.
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May 25th, 2004, 08:39 AM
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I viewed your lovely photos. Thank you. I love the attention to details.
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May 25th, 2004, 08:51 AM
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Great ? thank you! I will print your report and read it leasurely from paper and with a cup of coffee. I will go to Malta in the beginning of July.
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May 25th, 2004, 09:52 AM
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Glad you're all enjoying the report...there's more to come.

Mimi - I haven't been to Corsica but it's on my wish list.
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May 25th, 2004, 11:26 AM
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Adrienne, thank you for posting your report, especially with such great detail. I've been contemplating Malta for a while and your report is such a help.
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May 25th, 2004, 11:42 AM
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Good job, Adrienne! I read the Brass Dolphin over spring break this year and it piqued my interest about Malta, and now your report makes me really interested. We are friends with an elderly couple, both heavy-duty Catholics, and they are very fond of Malta for both its physical beauty and its historical and religious significance. I will let them know about your report so they can enjoy reading it as well!
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Tuesday, May 4

Overnight trip to Gozo. The island looks the way I thought Malta would look ? it's greener with fewer people and less traffic. Gozitans have a different dialect than Maltese, even though the two islands are less than 20 minutes apart by ferry. We took the tour bus to Cirkewwa for the ferry crossing. As we went through the channel we passed the third island in the Maltese archipelago, Comino, with an area of one square mile and a population of three (an elderly couple and a policeman). The policeman lives there because there's a summer resort hotel.

Gozo is the Spanish word for leisure and the pace is much slower than on Malta. It's a place for day trippers from Malta and for summer residences for the Maltese. Gozo was also a refuge for the Maltese residents during the WWII bombings.

The houses on Gozo have more adorned the facades and interiors than those on Malta and the balustrades are often carved. When Gozitans emigrated to other countries to find work and then returned, they would include some emblem of their new country on their houses, such as a kangaroo if they had emigrated to Australia or a Canadian or American flag.

Xaghra (Shah Rah), from the Arabic word meaning flat-topped hill. The main church in Xaghra is dedicated to Our Lady of Victories. On the two towers flanking the main door are clocks. One clock is real and shows the time; the other clock is painted on the tower with the time set at 13 minutes to 12:00. The purpose of the painted clock is to confuse the devil so he wouldn't know what time it was and wouldn't know when to seal the souls of the deceased.

A small, medieval chapel was first built on this site; building on the current church began in the 1850s with donations from local people. The interior of the church was not adorned for a long time since Xaghra residents could not afford to finish the interior. They asked expat Gozitans for funds to complete the church and the names of the donors are engraved on the marble pillars. The fabulous marble pulpit was made in Lucca, Italy. This was quite a beautiful church!

September 8 is the feast day of Our Lady of Victories. This is an important day in Maltese history: In 1565 the Maltese won the great siege over the Ottomans and in 1943 this date marked the end of WWII for Malta.

A stop at the site of Calypso's Cave overlooking Ramla Bay with its red sandy beach and water changing from turquoise near the sand to a deep royal blue farther away. The black line showing through the water is a fortification. It was here that Calypso allegedly kept Odysseus captive for seven years after he washed up on shore.

We saw the Stone Age Ggantija (meaning giantess) Temples with its standing stones rising as high as six meters. This is one of the best preserved, largest, and oldest of the temples. There are two temples on this site, North and South, together more than 40 meters long.

We stopped to see the restored Mithna ta' Kola windmill, built in 1725.

Near Dwejra Bay is a large rock formation called the Azure window which frames the blue, blue water of the bay. From the opposite side of the rocky outcrop we took small boats to the blue grotto which was exciting, not just for the blueness of the water but for the ride to get there.

We left the cove and went through a narrow passage between the rocks; a sort of tunnel. The boat twisted through the narrow, slightly winding rock tunnel, appearing as though we would wash up on the rock at any moment. I loved it! We entered the bay on the other side and then into the grotto. The water in the whole area is so blue it reminded me of blue jello as you pour it hot from the pan. The water inside the grotto is very clear and it seems as though you can see downward forever. It was a great boat ride.

As we emerged back through the rock tunnel the boatman pointed out the layers of color on the rock with coral as the lowest layer. You had to wait for the water to recede with the waves as the colored layers were from sea life clinging to the rock and were under the water level. The boatman also pointed out a rock formation on the hilltop in the shape of an alligator. We saw Fungus Rock, a flat-topped, slanted rock with a parasitic plant, normally found in North Africa, growing on top. This is the only place in Europe where this plant grows. It's been used to treat bleeding, infection, dysentery, and venereal disease. The plant was first discovered by one of the Knights and was harvested for use in the Knights's hospitals and sold in Europe.

A delightful lunch at Hotel Ta' Cenc in Sannat. A beautiful hotel on the water with private bungalows. Lunch was very good (salad and pasta), especially the tiramisu for dessert. It was by far the best tour food we had.

Our last stop was at Ta' Pinu church; the word Pinu is derived from Philippino. The current church was built as an extension of the original chapel. The interior walls are white and the chapel arches have carved reliefs. There's a mosaic frieze with clerestory windows above. The canopied altar has figures of the Pope and profits and there are round stained glass windows in the side chapels.

We stayed at the Cornucopia Hotel, the sister hotel to Ta' Cenc, where we had eaten lunch. The reception area was originally a farmhouse. The rooms are accessed from the outside rather than off a central corridor and there's a lovely small rectangular swimming pool in the courtyard with a larger pool on the side. Each room has a small table and chairs outside the room and the first floor has a balcony running in front of the rooms. I saw the only two sheep of the entire trip from my balcony. They were in a walled pen next to the hotel.

As we were returning to our rooms after dinner a couple of people were on the patio staring upwards. They were watching the lunar eclipse! How exciting. There was a quarter of the moon still showing so we stayed and watched to the end. That was my first lunar eclipse experience and how wonderful to see it in the clear Gozo sky.

Wednesday, May 5

We spent the day in Rabat, the capital city, also called Victoria. Our sightseeing was at the Citadel, the highest point on Gozo. The 1551 Ottoman invasion took 6,000 Gozitans as slaves. The only people remaining, the elderly, sick, and those able to hide, had a curfew and slept inside the Citadel every night for protection.

Inside the Citadel are the Court of Justice, Folklore Museum, Prison, and Cathedral. The January 10, 1693 Catania, Sicily earthquake damaged the cathedral and part of the Citadel crumbled. The present cathedral, the Assumption of the Virgin, was built within 14 years, between 1697 and 1711 by a Spanish Grand Master.

Behind the cathedral is an area with removable stones in the ground. Underneath are wheat silos where grain was stored in the event of a siege.

After seeing the cathedral, Nancy and I opted to visit the Folklore Museum which contains agricultural tools in medieval houses. It wasn't terribly inspiring. We were later told the prison was very interesting with wall carvings made by prisoners.

We had lunch at Xlendi Bay, a small resort town with waterfront shops and restaurants and a lovely promontory walk on one side and a cliff with caves on the other. By this time I was getting more adept at tour food eating. I realized I could bypass the main course and ask for substitutes. At Xlendi Bay (St. Patrick?s Hotel) I ordered a double salad, served with lots of peppered goat cheese.

I had the best ice cream of the entire trip in Xlendi Bay. The dessert that came with lunch was layers of pepto bismol pink and lime green ice cream alternating with cake. I took one look and passed. I walked outside and saw people going by eating ice cream cones. I followed the trail backwards until I found the ice cream shop. It was a much better choice than that dessert.

We had time for a stroll around the bay to Xlendi Tower before heading back to Malta.

Dinner at Cocopazzo in Valletta, a small restaurant on South Street, just a couple of blocks inside the gates. We (Nancy, Ron, Kay and I) arrived just after 8:00 and there were only a few open tables left. We ordered quickly and waited 45 minutes for our first course (salads, ravioli, and risotto). We thought we'd been forgotten but everything is cooked to order and most of the other diners were seated just before us. Our main courses arrived about 45 minutes after our first courses. I had veal in light tomato sauce and it was a bit tough.

We walked back to the bus terminus just before 11:00. We'd never been to Valletta late at night and were used to seeing the bus depot busy with buses and people everywhere. There was one bus in the entire large dark square. We took one look and knew we'd better get on that bus. Fortunately it was going to Sliema. This was the crazy wild ride on two wheels. Half way to Sliema Nancy turned to me and said "this is Mr. Toad?s Wild Ride." I lost it! I asked her if she had noticed the gentleman who got on and crossed himself. We then noticed several other people crossing themselves as we barreled around the curves. It seemed to be a good idea; it certainly wouldn't hurt to have some sort of blessing for this ride. We made it back safely.

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Thursday, May 6

This was a free day and Nancy and I had booked a rental car through Wembley. It's difficult to rent a car for one day; most places would only rent for a week. Wembley was the exception. The rate was 12.50LM plus another 3.50LM to bring the deductible down from 200LM to 25LM. I know we could have used the insurance from my Visa card but I had already had two experiences where that didn't work out and didn't want to chance it.

Since we had arrived in Malta folks in our group keep talking about how bad the Maltese drivers are. They didn't seem exceptionally bad to me. Ok, so they didn't stop at stop signs or red lights. But at least there didn't seem to be any road rage like at home; no blasting horns or shouting or fist shaking through the windows. They all seemed pretty calm.

We could have had the car delivered to our hotel and picked up but that would have been another 7LM so we decided to spend 15 cents each and take the bus to the car rental office. At breakfast Gloria and Leong said they were going to the Ta' Qali (Ta Ali) Craft Village first thing so I invited them along on the ride. We took the bus to Pembroke and picked up the car. It was a bright green Czech car; don?t know the brand.

Twice before when I had rented cars in Europe I got into the cars and realized I didn't know how to get into reverse. Everyone had orders to make sure I understood how to get into reverse. The car rental gentleman spent a lot of time showing me reverse. Once I started driving the car I knew why he was so explicit about reverse. It was difficult to get into that gear. I about wore out my arm every time I had to reverse. By the end of the day I would park on a hill so I could back down to turn around and avoid trying to put the car into reverse.

The first herculean task was trying to make a right turn out of the car rental lot onto a busy street without knowing the car. After several minutes I gave up, made a left turn, turned left again at the first traffic light and turned around. That allowed me to make the right turn with a traffic light and reduced my stress level.

Leong navigated expertly to our first stop; I concentrated on the driving. The Aviation Museum. We bought our tickets and Nancy started talking with the gentleman (Ken Yale) who sold them. It turns out Mr. Yale was a Navy pilot during WWII. It was so interesting to talk to him. He walked around with us telling us stories about the planes, showed us the type of plane he flew (biplane) and how his squad was in the flying sequences in the movie "Cruel Sea."

He was going to take us behind the scenes so we could touch the fuselage of the plane they are restoring (Hawker Hurricane) but he couldn't interrupt the work since they're on a tight schedule. The fuselage is made from Irish Linen and strengthened with the same ingredient that used to be used in nail varnish (don't know the name of the product). The wings and engine cover are made from metal. He showed us photos of the plane when it was taken out of the sea, all corroded. The restoration is almost finished and the plane looks brand new. It's amazing.

Other planes in the museum include a de Havilland Tiger Moth and a small blue and white plane called a Flying Flea.

Mr. Yale also told us about training in the Link flight simulator and how difficult it was for him since he's claustrophobic. When you're inside you're flying blind and a gadget is recording all your movements. He said whenever he made a mistake he could hear his mates laughing at whatever crazy mistake he made and he was totally embarrassed.

Mr. Yale made our visit to the Aviation Museum very memorable and exciting. Nancy and I both sent him thank you notes and I included the photo I took of him next to the simulator.

Shopping next. The craft village is a series of corrugated iron huts and some buildings. There's lots of glass and jewelry. The only glass I was completely impressed with was the Gozo glass I saw at our hotel and in Valletta. It really appealed to me but I didn't indulge. I bought some really great silver filigree jewelry (a toe ring, large Maltese cross, and earrings). We stopped at the Mdina glass factory which had gorgeous glass items in every price range - Nancy bought several pieces. We wandered around the village for about an hour or so and then Nancy and I went on our way. Gloria and Leong were staying longer and taking the bus back to Sliema.

I had bought a map (special order) before I left home. When I picked it up at the local bookstore I took a look at it and noticed there were no route numbers or road names. That was a bit scary but took the map anyway thinking perhaps there are no route numbers in Malta since the country is so small. I was correct. Within towns there are street signs. But from town to town there are no street signs, and no route signs; only signs directing you to other towns. This was fine if you are heading toward a main town. Away from the towns it was a little difficult. Very few signs.

We headed for the Clapham Junction Cart Ruts via Rabat and Dingli, the highest point on Malta. We drove along the coast road up high on the cliffs, looking for signs to the Cart Ruts. From the map we knew they were near the Inquisitor's Palace and the Buskett Gardens so we followed whatever signs we saw.

The roads we were on were paved but were more like tracts, quite narrow, really one lane. Made a few wrong turns and stopped to ask anyone we saw but there were few people about. I'm not quite sure how we found the Cart Ruts but we did. We came to the end of a road and saw another car parked on the side and a couple of people walking in what appeared to be a field. We figured this must be the Cart Ruts otherwise what were those people doing here, in the middle of no place.

We locked up the car and all of a sudden a man appeared out of seemingly nowhere. We didn't see him and then he was at our side wanting to guide us to the Cart Ruts. Why not? He spoke some English and was quite nice. He showed us the Cart Ruts which we would have seen if we had walked into the field. He then sweetly picked some green stuff from the field and gave it to us. It was wild thyme. I never would have thought there would be thyme growing here. It was great. He then picked some other green stuff and it turned out to be fennel fronds. We took photos of our guide in the ruts, gave him a tip, and then left.

We felt quite proud. We were having adventures. We were driving the car well and getting where we wanted to go. So what if it took us much longer than we anticipated and we made a few detours and wrong turns and wound up who knows where with no signs to direct us. We were having a blast!

From the Cart Ruts we knew we wanted to go away from Rabat and continue toward Siggiewi (Si Gee Wee), which we termed Ziggy Wiggy in a fit of giggles. We couldn't really tell which way we were going from the roads and the terrain. It looked the same in all directions. We had one landmark and that was the quarry located at an intersection. When we got there we tried to figure out where the quarry was in relation to the road we came in on but got a bit confused. I think we stopped a passing motorist (one of the very few).

We found our way to Buskett Gardens, a large forest of tall trees (well a large forest for Malta). From there we found a main road and spotted a bus. We really had no idea where we were going so we followed the bus. It had to be going to a main town and the one main town in the area was Ziggy Wiggy!

We found Siggiewi but as it was mid afternoon the town was shut up. We saw a pedestrian and asked him for directions to the Limestone Heritage (museum in a former quarry). I had wanted to see the church in Siggiewi but it was shut too. We found the Limestone Heritage and went in to the cool air conditioning. It felt good. We asked about the next tour and were told it was starting in 2 minutes. The tours run every 15 minutes.

We were the only people on the tour. We started with a short video on limestone and quarrying in Malta. Just like the Malta Experience there are headphones which you set to the appropriate language. 30 seconds into the video Nancy yells "I can't understand a thing!" She didn't pay attention to the guide when he said put the audio on number 2 for English! It was pretty funny. Nancy - you missed the best part of the AV show! (wink wink)

You then get portable earphones and a CD for the trip through the quarry for an explanation of the quarrying process, then and now. There has been more limestone quarried in Malta in the last 30 years than in the previous 700 years. In the 1950s stone cutting machinery was introduced. Prior to this quarrying was manual with rudimentary tools such as chisels and hammers. The audio explains the quarrying process of cutting vertical and horizontal grooves in the stone. You can see the marks the machine left in the quarry walls. There's an old painted wooden cart formerly used to transport stone with very large wheels. It's this type of cart that would have made the ruts in the limestone we saw at Clapham Junction.

We also had an opportunity to see a Girna close up. These are conical huts made from rubble stone, used for farmers as shelter so they didn't have to return home if bad weather erupted. Malta weather is quickly changeable. The girnas are very similar to the bories I saw in Provence.

We didn't realize the Limestone Heritage closes at 3:00 and we arrived at 3:15. It was so sweet of them to run the tour just for us. They could have easily turned us away. This is so typical of the Maltese people. They're even tempered and very helpful. Even their driving isn't aggressive. They simply don't believe in obeying road rules. I think traffic lights and stop signs are so new to Malta that the drivers just drive the way they always have.

How to get out of Ziggy Wiggy. We left the Limestone Heritage and turned in the opposite direction from whence we came. That seemed logical. We immediately found ourselves at a round about with lots of directional signs. Each road coming in to the round about had three or four towns listed. Ok Nancy - which way do we go to get to Zurrieq for the Blue Grotto. This is where we almost wet our pants laughing. I'd call out the town names and Nancy would tell me "no - that's not the direction we want." Once, twice, thrice around the ring with Nancy telling me not to get off yet. Four, five, six times around the ring. Which way do we go, Nancy??? Oh navigator!!! We looped around about 20 times. What a blast. I just held the steering wheel firm at 30 degrees and we turned and turned and turned.

Another plea from Nancy to tell you about her navigation skills. During our many emails when we were discussing renting a car I said I would drive because I had stick shift experience. I asked Nancy if she could read a map and she assured me she could. Well, she can certainly read a map but has no sense of direction! Every time we walked out of the hotel on our own she would point us in the wrong direction. If we were supposed to go toward the harbour (for Valletta) Nancy would start for the bay and when we were supposed to go toward the bay (for St. Julian's) the official navigator would head for the harbour. I kept telling her her directional skills were scaring me!

We finally picked a town and started going toward it. It was the right direction. We made it to the water, near the Blue Grotto, on the southern side of the island and parked by a café. Refreshments were called for. We both had sodas and I had an ice cream too for fortification. While paying for our drinks we ran into the two English teenagers we met on the cliff walk at Xlendi Bay on Gozo. They were taking their holiday on Gozo and came to Malta with their parents for the day. What a small world.

After 20 minutes or so of gazing at the water we were rested enough for the drive back. We planned on driving directly to the car rental agency, dropping off the car and taking the bus back to the hotel.

We headed north and followed signs for Valletta. We didn't see any signs for Sliema or St. Julian's but thought they wouldn't be far behind the Valletta signs. We never did see any Sliema signs and all of a sudden we were at the Floriana gates heading into Valletta. Just where we didn't want to be. It was only 20 minutes from the Blue Grotto to Valletta. That was quick.

We stopped and asked how to get to Sliema. We turned around and went back out the road we had just come in and followed the quite small signs which started appearing. We were going fine in rush hour traffic until all of a sudden the Sliema sign pointed left and we were in the right lane and couldn't get over. So we looped around again and were in the left lane the second time. It was 40 minutes from Valletta to Sliema (one town over) where we stopped back at the hotel for a rest before returning the rental car.

We freshened up and asked Ron if he wanted to go with us to return the car and then have dinner in St. Julian's. Ron was totally impressed with my Malta driving skills!! If a guy says you're driving well then you know you're doing really well!! We got a bit lost driving to Pembroke but stopped for directions and found the rental agency.

After returning the car, we asked for the bus stop to St. Julian's and were told they would send us in a car. How wonderful. We went to dinner at Paparazzi, and ate on their terrace with a view over the bay. It was lovely and the food was good. Paparazzi gives funny names to their dishes such as Ruffle the Truffle and Behind Closed Doors. Nancy and I shared a pasta and Ron had a huge octopus salad.

Malta Driving

I know how to drive a stick shift (I've never owned an automatic) and have experience driving in England, Scotland, France, and Italy on rural roads and small towns. I have to say driving in Malta was the toughest. It was a combination of the left hand drive, ambiguous signs (or no signs), and the Maltese who take more than their share of the road when approaching from the opposite direction - that was scary. I love the round abouts and even knew which way to go when approaching them from my experiences in England. We would have missed a great day and lots of laughs if we hadn't rented the car but we did cancel the second day's reservation. The buses are the way to go in Malta.

more to come....
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May 26th, 2004, 02:25 PM
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Friday, May 7

A couple of months before the trip Nancy had booked Hypogeum tickets since this wasn't on the Grand Circle itinerary. After we arrived in Malta, Stuart offered the trip to the group but we kept our original 10:30 reservations and went on our own.

Bus from Sliema to Valetta and then another bus to Paola. We asked for directions to the Hypogeum and followed the directions but completely passed it by. The only sign is above the doorway and it's very easy to miss. From the main square in Paola (by the bus stop) go uphill (it's a slight incline) about three blocks and turn right on Cemetery Street (Triq ic-Cimiterju). Watch for the Hypogeum sign on the wall with an arrow so you know which street to turn down. The Hypogeum is on the right side. The tour is 1 hour.

This was the most amazing temple. I'm glad we did it after we saw the outdoor temples since they would have been a let down if we had seen the Hypogeum first. This is an underground temple but wonderfully preserved. It gives you a better understanding of what the other temples must have originally looked like. This site dates from between 3,600 and 3,000 BC and was discovered in 1902.

You descend with a guide and keep to a railed walkway. There are spot lights which stay on all the time for safety. Each aspect of the temple is briefly lighted in succession and the guide tells you where to stand and which way to face while he explains what you're looking at. If you miss the lighting on a particular spot you catch it on the way back.

The Oracle Room is named because of the oracle hole that echoes throughout the chamber when someone (the guide) makes a sound directly into it. It contains the same spiral etchings in the stone we saw in the other temples, however these spirals are painted.

The room called the Holy of Holies is the most spectacular part of the Hypogeum. The ability to carve concentric ceiling circles, lintels and posts and stairs from solid rock with primitive tools is simply amazing. It looks just like what it is - a temple.

The Sleeping Lady, a sort of earth mother goddess reclining on a bed, is now at the Archaeological Museum. She and other small sculptures of animals and humans were found at the Hypogeum.

Back to Valletta to see some things we missed. The Crafts Center was finally open. They don't sell items here but you can view the different crafts Malta offers. Nancy spotted some unique terra cotta pottery dishes with white lace embossing in the center. They were certainly different from other pottery we had seen. We were told the vendor would be at the Sunday Valletta market.

A quick lunch at Caffe Cordina (we really liked the place; Nancy especially liked the cafe lattes!).

The Archaeology Museum contains all the original stones, carvings, primitive tools and statues including the Sleeping Lady, from the temples. There?s also a scale model of the Hypogeum and models of other temples.

Casa Rocca Piccola, 74 Republic Street. Guided tours on the hour. This is a 16th century palace that was built by one of the Knights, Don Pietro La Rocca. It's just lovely and if you like touring houses don?t miss this.

Saturday, May 8

Mdina is delightful. It's a small pedestrian only, medieval walled town and was the original capital of Malta. You enter through a beautiful stone gate with carved reliefs. There are narrow streets and plenty of sights to see to keep you occupied for most of a day. Mdina is known as the "silent city," because very little happened here. It was, and still is, a quiet dwelling place rather than a center of commerce.

Its height and fortifications made it an ideal place to settle. Since it's on a hill it's cooler in summer than neighboring towns. There are only a few shops; it's mostly residential and for a long time it was home to the island's affluent citizens.

In 60AD, Publius welcomed St. Paul following his ship wreck and became the first person on Malta to convert to Christianity and first Bishop of Malta.

We began with the Mdina Experience, an audio visual show. I can't really comment on this show since I slept through it! Perhaps Nancy remembers it. (Nancy - not really - tough to stay awake.) I guess that pretty much says it all - we both fell asleep!

Mdina Cathedral is dedicated to St. Paul and supposedly stands on the site where Publius had his home. The present cathedral stands on the site of a Norman Cathedral that was destroyed during the 1693 earthquake. Only the rear apse, baptismal font, and sacristy door (originally the main door) survived.

The floor is inlaid marble slabs commemorating important clergy and laymen. The ceiling is frescoed with scenes from the life of St. Paul.

The outstanding exhibit in the Cathedral Museum is the Durer woodcuts and copperplate engravings of the Life of the Virgin and Christ's Passion. Sadly, they're poorly displayed with the works mounted above and below eye level in glass cases with harsh and glaring lighting. The museum additionally displays vestments and illuminated manuscripts.

The Dungeon Museum is worth a miss, although Ron loved it and we had to get the ticketseller to pull him out so we could continue on! It has many rooms of life-size figures shown in various means of torture with piped in sounds of people wailing. Yuk. I left after a few rooms and waited outside.

The group went on and Nancy and I stayed to walk through the narrow streets and sit in a café. We took the public buses back to the hotel. We had just missed the direct bus to Sliema (every 30 minutes) which would take 45 minutes so we hopped on a bus to Valletta after asking the driver how long it would take to Valletta (25 minutes). Even with a transfer at Valletta we would be back sooner than waiting for the next Sliema bus. It seems that it's always quicker to go to Valletta and transfer. This was the bone crunching ride that really only took 17 minutes! I wonder how many stops that driver missed!

Time to freshen up before our farewell dinner. I wore my new silver filigree Maltese Cross and all the ladies admired it. Earlier that day Stuart took a group photo and he had copies for each of us. A very nice touch.

After dinner Nancy, Ron, and I walked down to the harbor to watch the fireworks. According to the newspaper there were two displays; one at 9:15 and the other at 11:00. We were there at 9:15 but the fireworks didn't start until 9:45. We watched for about 45 minutes and then walked back to the hotel. There was only one continuous fireworks display that lasted until the grand finale at 11:00. I saw that from my hotel balcony.

more to come...
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May 26th, 2004, 04:55 PM
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Sunday, May 9

Our last day in Malta. Nancy and I took the bus to Valletta for the market. She wanted to find the vendor who makes the terra cotta dishes with lace imprint. We walked through the entire market and finally found him at the end. Nancy bought a lovely dish that will be a great souvenir of her trip.

On to the Marsaxlokk Market. This was one great market. This is the market to see on Malta. We spent two hours walking through it looking at all the food, fish, and household goods. We noticed lots of people carrying limp greens, looking like long flat-leaf parsley. One young man selling transfer tattoos (of course I bought a package) was eating something from the pods of these green leafy things. I asked what they were - they were small peas, one or two peas to a pod. He gave me a couple of pods to try (very nice of him). Nancy kept eyeing some of the tablecloths but in the end she didn't buy one.

At the end of the market we stopped for a beer (Nancy) and an ice cream (me). Asked where we could catch the bus back to Valletta (in true Malta bus fashion the bus stop to go to Valletta was in a different place from the bus stop where we got off the Valletta bus). It was down a side street by the cathedral.

We got a seat toward the front (we were getting better at pushing our way onto the bus to get good seats). A tip on the buses - don't take the front seat since there?s nothing in front of you to hold on to. Always go for the second seats.

We decided to go back to St. Julian's to Paparazzi for dinner. One last dinner on the water. We split a different pasta this time, had a bottle of wine and dessert.

Time to go back to the hotel to finish our packing. We had a 4am wake up call for a 4:45 bus to the airport.

Tonight was the last night of the week-long EU Accession celebrations. The bus was packed and there was only standing room when we got on. It seemed everyone was going to Valletta for the fireworks. We were hoping we would be able to spot our bus stop (Preluna Hotel) from a standing position. We were also hoping we would be able to get off the bus. The bus did stop at the Preluna Hotel but we didn't recognize where we were. We started ringing the buzzer to stop and figured we could get off at the next stop since our hotel was midway between two stops. Wouldn't you know that the driver, I guess hoping to get rid of some of the people on the bus before Valletta, stopped at an unscheduled place to let us off. Once we got our bearings we realized we were very close to our hotel. What luck!

I was all packed and started watching the fireworks from the balcony. I didn't have a very good view this time so I went to the hall window and looked out. I could see them better from the hall. I watched for a while and then went back to my room. I knew I wouldn't go to sleep knowing the fireworks were going off. I didn't want to miss them. All of a sudden I decided to get dressed and walk down to the harbor and watch them there. I stayed until the end - a perfect finale to the trip.

4:00 came around mighty quickly. At the airport Nancy and I had our final Malta caffe lattes (2 each) and chatted for a while. The flight took off on time and three hours later we were in London. Nancy was sitting in the front of the plane and I thought I would see her when I got off. She must have gone into warp drive since I never caught up with her. I was leaving from the same terminal for my BA flight; she was leaving from T3. I did see Ron and we hugged good bye. I told him to give Nancy a hug for me if he saw her. BYE NANCY!!

That's our marvelous trip. Would I go back to Malta? Yes I would.

What things cost in Maltese Lire

Most museums (1.00) senior discount over 60 (.50)
Limestone Heritage (2.30)
Dinners/main courses in a moderate restaurant (3.00 to 5.00)
Salads (2.00 to 4.00)
Desserts (1.50 to 2.00)
Bottle local wine in restaurant (2.80)
Bottle local wine in supermarket (1.07)
Buses (.15) ? no transfers, only point-to-point tickets
Ice cream (.40 to .60)
1.5 litre water in supermarket (.45)
Half pint Cisk (local beer) (.85)
Liter gasoline (.38)
Sandwich (1.50)
Soft drink (.50)
Postcard stamp to the US (.22)
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