An unexpected gap in our itinerary meant a new adventure.
Not sure if it was the draw of some sunshine and warmth, the history and culture of a unknown island or the great value package we found. But Malta really was an unexpected delight!!
The only real frustration was the lack of a decent camera, not that we pride ourselves on anything fantastic, but we'd left our camera batteries and charger in Croatia and couldn't bring ourselves to pay €70 while in Malta knowing that we could get the same thing in the UK for under £20 so I have borrowed a couple of pics.
Our trip from the airport to hotel was a lesson on survival at speed. As the driver delighted in showing us the skills he'd developed on this car infested island. Malta has the dubious honour of having the most cars per head of population than any other country in the world.
The white houses just seemed to be en mass, using white as a loose description as close up they were a dirty shade of beige, mind you with the rich coloured soil and the dust a in the summer how could they stay pristine what for long.
We dropped our gear at the apartment, in St Julians Bay, right in the hub of the night life zone. Finding a good coffee shop wasn’t hard but feeling like we were slap bang in the nightclub till 4.10am well that did make us feel old!!!!
Ta Pinu Church Gozo
We soon befriended a delightful young Japanese boy Tom, staying above us, who was very keen to practise his English. He showed us where the local supermarkets were, bus stops and routes and then joined us for coffee, filling us in on the main attraction for a young man like him to come and spend four weeks on the island of Malta!! English Language course for a few hours in the morning, cheap booze, great nightlife and even a wonderful historical site to explore in the afternoons.
St Julians Bay
It was perfect touring weather, temperature high teens low 20’s and clear
blue skies. So walking shoes on and off we go, strolling along the foreshore, and around the first corner a delightful little bay filled with small fishing boats bobbing about.
Always a local cafe nearby to sit, drink coffee, relax (have perfected that), admire the view and taste some of the delicious local delicacies like Pastizz ( translated as cheesecake, a small ricotta cheese filled filo pastry snack, sold on streets corners) and even the Lampuki pie ( or known to us as the mahi-mahi fish pie - recipe following ) which is almost as popular to the Maltese as rabbit is!
It was great to do the quick ferry trip across to Gozo, the smaller island of the Maltese archipelago, and spend the day exploring the slower paced, unspoiled countryside.
It is one third of the size, quieter and greener with some delightful sandy beaches and numerous villages all of which have their own churches and immaculately kept cemeteries. The money that has come from the pockets of these the islanders, to pay for and to physically build their churches is unbelievable. Certainly a sign of a deeply religious population. There are forty six churches all up and the Xewkija church, the largest, can hold over 3,000 people and its dome is larger than that of St Pauls Cathedral in London!
Azure window - Gozo
As we travel through the island there is no sign of any animal life except the odd cat or dog. They are all kept in doors and the owner will cut the grass and take it to them or buy in processed feed. All the plots of land are privately owned and the weather is temperate so perfect for growing most things outside with out any irrigation. Vegetables such as tomatoes, potatoes and melons are far more profitable to grow so the animals are never grazed outside. There used to be sheep and goats, but now more chickens, rabbits and dairy cows.
Medieval wash house
This medieval wash house was built in the sixteenth century over the natural springs for the convenience of the local people of Fontana.
Maltese lace-making, or Bizzilla as it is known as, is a traditional craft that was handed down from mother to daughter over the years and is now taught in some of the government schools to ensure that the skill is kept alive. This ancient craft was introduced by the Knights of St John in the mid sixteenth century and over the years has been invaluable to the livelihood of many families especially on the island of Gozo. Sadly being mid winter and lack of tourists we didn’t see any women sitting by their doorway practising their lacemaking art and selling their wares but I gather it still goes on.
We had a good tour of the island including a wander around a 300 year old house converted into a type of local museum. Lunched down in the gorgeous Xlendi Bay at a typical local restaurant. Enjoyed a traditional simple lunch, three basic courses which included some delicious local fresh fish and nice to find ourselves sitting amongst some rowdy locals who were clearly enjoying their day.
Another of Gozo’s claim to fame is being home to one of the oldest known ruins in the world - 3500 years BC, means that they are 1000 years older than Stonehenge!
We saw some crazy young chap with horse and sulky sprinting down the middle of a paved road in a small town. I gather he was practising for the races that take place down the main street of in Victoria during the festival celebrations - scary stuff.
Victoria on Gozo
Victoria, or Rabat as it is still known by the locals, is the capital and a great point of reference as from here you have a wonderful 360 degree view of the whole island. It is home to the Crown of Gozo better known as the Citadel within the old fortified city. We were delighted to find some passionate locals givings fascinating free guided tour - so much history involved as this area has been the centre of activity for over 7000 years.
St Julians Bay and its noisy night life and Sliema with all its shopping and trendy cafes seemed very bland after Gozo, but from here we could catch a ferry across to old fortified capital of Valetta. So much nicer to arrive by sea than through the main entrance that doubles as the bus station. Even the view of the city’s skyline on the way over is spectacular. We wandered up the old narrow streets from the ferry to the Upper Barrakka Gardens.
From here you get the most amazing view of the Malta’s Grand Habour and start to get an idea of just how emense and well fortified the city is. The history and sieges that it has withstood are all part of its dramatic history, which has made it a world heritage site and a city full of precious jewels like the famous St John’s Cathedral.
View of Valetta from the ferry
We took a few sobering but fascinating hours in the National War Museum getting a better understanding of the role that this small but courageous island has played in the wars over the years. The bravery of these people certainly earned them the respect of many and the Brits awarded the country of Malta the George Cross medal in 1942. A really interesting afternoon spent capturing the struggles of war and putting things in perspective and full of wartime memorabilia even the bell off the H.M.S. Maori.
Streets of Valetta
The streets of Valetta are lined with baroque styled limestone buildings and I loved the colourful enclosed wooden balconies on so many of the houses. Luckily they have easy access to more limestone as the work being done on many old buildings and the grand entrance way could be ongoing for sometime. I also loved the narrow streets, easy to get around as they’re built in a grid like pattern, and especially the ones that run downhill towards the vivid blue Mediterranean sea. You feel as though you could just run and jump right off the edge!!
The Maltese people come across as very laid back but always friendly and helpful. Not aggressive except when they are behind the wheel of a car and we'd had an introduction to that on our arrival. We didn’t notice a lot of hand gestures, like the Italians their closest neighbours, but lots noise and use of their horns and many close calls!! Almost everyone speaks English, although since gaining independence it has gone to being their second language. Even the locals admit that Maltese is a tricky language as it has been influenced by the numerous nationalities that have inhabited the Islands and is a very difficult language to write.
We caught a local bus out to both Mdina and Mosta only a stones away but think we went the long way and stopped every spot imaginable, still its a great way to see the country and admire the beautifully cultivated small plots of land. The old capital Mdina is another medieval fortified city placed on a large hill right in the middle of Malta.
Stunning colours in Mdina
It is truly magical with its grand entranceway, narrow winding cobbled streets that lead you down little alleyways, and old majestic palaces,most of which are now private homes. It’s known as both the Noble city and the Silent city, as it has been home to many noble families over the years and nowadays has only about 250 inhabitants so cars are kept to an absolute minimum and it is an absolute pleasure to wander around and soak in the atmosphere.
The very grand Mosta dome, towers above all in the nearby small town of Mosta. Built in the mid 1800’s it by a Maltese architect whose plans were based around that of the Pantheon in Rome, it is the third largest church dome in Europe. A very impressive site indeed.
Traditional fishing boat
Next day on the bus we found Marsaxlokk, a typical Mediterranean fishing village that has retained its wonderful traditional housing without a sign of big hotels or such. Its a very picturesque little bay full of masses of colourful little fishing boats, thriving market and fish restaurants. Such a lovely restful site after the hustle of the other side of the island although they were certainly touting for business at the restaurants. Tourism is their major income earner here, and they're so friendly and respectful of the tourists, it was great to support them and leave a few Euros behind.