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BandA’s Travel Diary

Monday, 29 Oct 2007

Location: Malta

Map2007 Mediterranean Meanderings of Bernadette & Anthony

Chapter 1 Malta

Monday October 29, 2007
Fortunately our plane from Tullamarine was not scheduled to leave until 1730 so we spent the morning with last minute packing. Having farewelled Gidget (our family dog who was spending her holidays with her old friend Sam and his kind mistress Trish), we set off to the airport with Tracy. There all went well apart from one minor mishap. As we were lined up to check in we were both wearing backpacks but, unwisely, B bent down to tie her shoelace. The change in the position of her centre of gravity left B sprawled on the floor of the airport, with injury only to her pride. (B. Actually she was overcome with laughter!)

The first leg of our flight was to Singapore with Singapore Airlines from whom we received friendly service. During the flight we also appreciated our personal computer screens that provided a great array of programs, including one to teach oneself French. Given that our destinations in North Africa were ex-French colonies, we thought this was a good opportunity to polish up our rudimentary French. A tried his luck but soon fell asleep only to be wakened for our 2-hour stopover in Singapore airport!

One transit area is very like another so, after a late start, we were glad to be off to Frankfurt with Lufthansa on a 12-hour flight, and more sleep until our arrival at 0600. As usual we found the service from Lufthansa quite unimpressive.

Tuesday October 30
Unfortunately, we were now faced with a 5-hour wait in the Frankfurt airport for our connection to Malta. However, we were becoming very familiar with Frankfurt airport, as we had two similar stopovers last year on our way to and from Edinburgh, so we found the reclining lounge area and relaxed.

The flight from Frankfurt to Malta was quite uneventful, the first half being cloudy, the second half being over the Mediterranean. Our plane was small and the flight took only one-hour. During the flight we noted that tourists seemed in short supply on the plane and we found this was also true during much of our subsequent travel round Malta. Summer apparently is the tourist season so we timed it well.

As we flew over Malta we noted the combination of intense agriculture and frequent medium sized towns. From both our first impressions from the air, and later from ground level, we could see how the agricultural land in Malta was rapidly being swallowed up by houses. A was unimpressed with, what he considered, the drab appearance of the towns, completely lacking colour while B was more favourable impressed with the homes built of limestone blocks. Even though most of them were built in the same style their varied balconies created a gracious air. We later found it interesting to look at the real estate advertisements that gave no indication of the exterior of the houses; instead they concentrated on the interiors.

There are only three Servas hosts in Malta and two of these are “day-hosts”. For our first two days therefore we had arranged accommodation at a B&B in a town called Sieggiewi situated in the general direction of the airport. However to get there from the airport we had to first go into Valetta, the opposite direction, and then take another bus back out to Sieggiewi. On arriving there we called our Landlady, Lena Frendo, and within minutes her husband Alf arrived by car came to collect us from the delightful, small, local square where we were waiting.

The home was a two-storey terrace house, called Chez Nous, with a garage underneath down a steep slope. (We later observed that these garages could be flooded in heavy rain and some owners had put barriers across the drive to prevent this happening.) The Frendos lived on the ground floor while we had the whole of the second floor to ourselves. It was also possible to go up stairs to the flat roof where the washing was dried and where it would be pleasant to sit on mild days. At the rear was a small garden with lemon trees. Our front bedroom looked out on a building site over the road. Lena told us that until recently that had been a productive small piece of agricultural land. One final impressive feature in the house was that most of the walls were decorated with beautiful framed embroidery in varied styles—the work of our hostess Lena. She also dressed dolls with her exquisite handiwork.

That evening we were collected and taken by car to the home of Alfred and Therese Caruana (Servas Day Hosts) and their daughter Elaine, who were leaving for a holiday to Ireland the following day. The only one who did not welcome us was the small dog that seemed to think we were unwelcome intruders. It sat on the armchair behind Therese and would emerge from under her left arm to bark persistently at us before retreating again to her protection. As we noted throughout Malta, the interior of the house was very beautifully decorated. We had a pleasant chat and fed some appetising nibbles. Then Alfred drove us home, showing us, as far as was possible in the dark, the sights around Valetta.

We were, not surprisingly, very weary when we arrived back at our B&B and, after a shower that provided little more than a dribble, had an early night and a very sound sleep.

Wednesday October 31
After a homely breakfast of eggs, cheese, ham toast and coffee, we had arranged to meet a local priest, Fr Nicholas Aquilina, one of the three Maltese Servas hosts who lived in Sieggiewie and was a friend of the Frendos. He was very well informed about the local history and took us on a brief historical tour.

Of particular interest was the large parish church dedicated to St Nicholas, which had been built in three stages over several centuries. The final stage was the erection of a large cupola towards the end of the 19th century. Surprisingly, this had been designed by a local doctor, Nicholas Zammit. The interior of the church was baroque. There were three high altars, two pre- and one post-Vatican II and a huge sacristy with magnificent wood panelling. There was, of course, a huge carved wooden statue of the patron, St Nicholas, which could be carried on five poles in procession by 10 men through the town. This procession should have taken place on his feast day, Dec 6 when the weather was poor, but it was transferred to June 6 when the weather was much more favourable. The church was very well maintained and the church authorities had a restriction on tourists visiting for fear of damage and improper behaviour. We thought it was a pity that tourists could not have the opportunity to appreciate this lovely church and suggested to Fr Nicholas that an ideal compromise could be to have authorised (volunteer or paid) guides to show tourists round the lovely church, as is currently done with St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne or York Minster in England.

Fr Nicholas also showed us round the ruins of a much earlier church as well as a couple of smaller shrines in the main square before taking us home to his residence for a welcome cool drink.

A few general comments here about Maltese homes. Generally the older homes were rather unattractive from the outside and calling out for a coat of paint, but in contrast were very nicely kept inside. Most homes have names, usually saints names, displayed at their entrance. However, as we walked along the streets we found one called “Australia” so we made ourselves known to the owner and learnt that she had lived for a number years in Australia and had now, reluctantly, returned to Malta. In fact we were told that there were more Maltese in Australia than in Malta.

The streets were meticulously clean with not a sign of a stray plastic bag or a plastic water bottle—such a contrast to what we had seen in the Middle East or East Africa, or were to see later in North Africa. Although occasionally we saw on our travels the odd “wheely-bin”, nowhere were they routinely used by individual householders as in Australia. Rubbish, unsorted, was simply deposited in large plastic bags and left on the roadside for collection as there was no recycling of papers, bottles, etc. In a few places a more advanced system enabled people to carry their recyclables to some deposit centre one or more blocks from their homes.

Before leaving Australia we had made a reservation to visit the World Heritage attraction, the Hypogeum, at 1300 that day. To ensure its safe preservation and minimization of contamination by carbon dioxide, the number of visitors in each group is limited to only 10, so there is great demand for admittance and advance reservations were essential.

We caught the local bus from Sieggiewi at 1200 assuming this would give us adequate time for our appointment at the Hypogeum. In fact we arrived at the vicinity of the Hypogeum at about 1305 but due to poor signage we ran quite past it and lost a further 10 minutes. As a result the authorities had transferred one of our reservations to another casual tourist so only B was allowed belatedly to join the group of 9 and A had to patiently wait outside till B and her companions emerged a hour later. While on the tour B felt very sad that A was not sharing the experience with her. So when she emerged she once again explained to the tour guide how they had been delayed.

At this stage the ticket officer had a little pity on A, especially when he explained he had come all the way from Australia to see the Hypogeum and how he had missed out. The officer said he would allow him to at least listen to the introductory talk and see the video, though he could not bend the rules about having more than the regulation 10 in a group. However, after the preliminary talk, the guide told A to be as inconspicuous as possible and join the tour. So all was not lost and, this time, B cooled her heels.

We were both very impressed with our visit as visitors were extremely well catered for. Each person is given a personal tape recorder in the appropriate language. This is then used to provide a soundtrack for a video of the main features they will see once they descend into the Hypogeum.

By now some of you will probably be wondering what this Hypogeum is. Well, it’s a series of underground burial chambers dating back to somewhere around 3,600-3,000 BC. It had disappeared from the collective memory and was only discovered in 1902 by pure chance. People were digging a well in the area and suddenly they discovered that their proposed well had no base and the hole at the bottom opened into a chamber carved out of the limestone. Further investigations revealed many more chambers that had been used to house the bones of the dead, archaeologists estimate about 7,000, and other chambers used for rituals and ceremonies.

We descended, by a gentle sloping path, deep into the complex. Each point of interest had a number so we could enter that on our personal tape recorders and hear the description of that site. The lighting was skilfully arranges to display the most interesting features and automatically came on as we approached. It was a great opportunity to reflect on the lives of our ancestors, millennia ago, to recognize fellow human beings who shared many common values with us, and to wonder at the continuity of the human spirit.

After our outstanding visit to the Hypogeun we made a comparatively quick visit to the Tarxien Temples, a short walk away. These too were discovered comparatively recently, 1914, and date from 3,600-2,500 BC. There were four temples in all but much of it looked like piles of rubble which, on close inspection, revealed some gems—bas-reliefs of animals, bulls, goats, and pigs, parts of statues including one called “the fat lady” which could, of course, be just as easily called “the fat man” as men wore skirts in those days, and geometric mosaics and carvings. We saluted the skill of the archaeologists who can piece together such fragments and glean some understanding of the life and beliefs of people from so long ago.

Before returning to the bus we visited a cemetery and noted that we could meet people in Australia any day with the same names: Attard, Attavari, Cassar, Frendo, Makalif, etc. We also discovered what is meant by a family grave there. One grave was open, apparently ready for a new interment, and B, leaning over, nearly tumbled in as she tried to see the bottom—it was at least 5 meters deep. Time was moving so we headed off to the bus and, on the way, saw the house named “Australia” mentioned earlier.

On our way back to Sieggiewi we called in at the Asti Guest house in Valetta where we had made an advance booking by phone from Australia for later in the week. Initially the lady was unable to find a record of our registration. Finally the penny dropped! When we had made our reservation by phone before leaving Australia she had found McGowan too difficult to spell so our reservation was in the name of Mr Anthony!

After this we thought we would try McDonald’s for a free “Seniors” coffee and a cheap ice cream, as was our custom in Australia, but no luck. Ice creams were three times the cost of those in Australia ($1.50) and there were no concession for Senior’s coffee. Another problem we encountered was with the water. Malta is very short of water and relies on a desalination plant and we began to suspect that the bottled water we bought was probably desalinated as it was not particularly pleasant to drink. As we wandered round that area, just inside the main gate to the walled city, many shops appeared shuttered and there seemed to be no large supermarkets and very few mini-supermarkets. Perhaps this was one of the few disadvantages of being there after the tourist season.

On arriving back in Sieggiewi we were just in time for evening Mass which was in Maltese and attended mainly by elderly worshippers. After arriving home we were collected and taken by car to the home of Alfred and Therese Caruana (Servas Day Hosts) and their daughter Elaine, who were leaving for a holiday to Ireland the following day. The only one who did not welcome us was the small dog that seemed to think we were unwelcome intruders. It would sit on the armchair behind Therese and then emerge from under her left arm to bark frantically before retreating again to her protective arm. As elsewhere the interior of the house was very beautifully decorated. We had a pleasant chat and ate some appetising nibbles. Then Alfred drove us home, showing us, as far as was possible in the dark, the sights around Valetta.

We were very weary when we arrived back at our B&B and after a shower that provided no more than a dribble, had an early night and a very sound sleep.

Thursday November 1
Today we were heading to Gozo, the second largest of the three islands that make up Malta. Here we were to stay with Mario Gauci, who was both a Servas and a Hospitality Club Host. Alf our B&B Landlord had
offered to drive us to the 1200 bus but, in the meantime, had gone fishing for octopus. We filled in the time by visiting a nearby, very interesting Limestone Heritage Museum where they demonstrated the old and new techniques of quarrying limestone and then building with it. There were a large number of tourists, including local school children, as it was a very professional display. As elsewhere in Malta we were provided with personal tape recorders so that we could inspect the various displays at our own pace, together with detailed descriptions.

The Museum itself was built in the quarry created by the removal of the limestone and, as there had been recent heavy rain, we were able to enjoy the sight of water falling like a bridal veil from the top to the bottom. Another section of the quarry wall gave us a better understanding of the discovery of the Hypogeum, as we were able to see a cross-section of a well cut into the stone.

On his return, Alf proudly showed us the large octopus he had caught and then took us back to the main square where we caught the 1200 bus into Valetta followed by an 85-minute trip to Cirkewwa at the NW corner of the main island. We were surprised to see that there were built up settlements most of the way and, as mentioned earlier, the limited agricultural land in Malta is rapidly being swallowed up by housing developments. This is causing considerable political controversy. Towards the end of this bus ride we again found ourselves in the steps of St Paul as the bus took us past St Paul’s Bay where he landed, after his ship was wrecked.

From Cirkewwa a ferry takes you on a short 30-minute tip to Mgarr on Gozo. Once off the ferry a dishonest taxi driver told us it would be an hour before there was a bus to Victoria, the Capital of Gozo, where we were to meet our Host. In fact a bus left within five minutes!! Fortunately we did not believe him. We had arranged to meet Mario at 1630 and arrived at Victoria in plenty of time so took the opportunity to wander around the town a little. Because of our packs we had to do this individually.

Mario arrived on time and took us to his home at Xaghrawhere we found a very old home, over 150 years. There we received a warm welcome and were invited to choose which of three rooms we would like to sleep in. We chose a ground-floor room then, after being well fed on pasta followed by fresh fruit, we retired to our comfortable bed on the floor.

This house was also multi-storey, with a patio opening off the first floor at one end and a further room and patio positioned above the first floor. Once again, these areas were great for drying washing, providing a pleasant sleeping area on hot nights, and giving wonderful panoramic views of the island. They were even enhanced by a brave vine that had climbed all the way up from the ground below.

Friday November 2
Mario went off to work early so we had a relaxing easy going morning, washed some clothes, went shopping, visited the large church of Our Lady of the Nativity in Xaghra and prepared to visit Victoria (Rabat), about an hour’s walk. (Mario had arranged to meet us after work and again drive us home.) However, when we returned to the house prior to our longer excursion we had great trouble opening the door. Finally, after much pulling and pushing, it opened and we were able to unload our parcels and head off. On the way we called in at a neat little country cemetery where, as it was All Souls Day, there were quite a number of people visiting. As at our previous visit to a cemetery it is interesting how frequently you come across the same Maltese names. From the cemetery we could see our destination across the valley.

Once we reached Victoria we went to a small chapel that B had visited the day before. On both occasions there were a number of locals at prayer. On the pavement outside were a number of inscriptions and one of them we had first met in England at the house of A’s cousin Wendy.


All attempts at translation welcomed!

It was a hot day so we then enjoyed a peaceful cool rest in the magnificently decorated church of St George before having lunch in the adjacent plaza. As in Canada/Alaska last year we found that meals served in restaurants are consistently too big for us, so we have developed the habit of just ordering one meal and splitting it between us. In this case we forgot to do so and ordered two meals so consequently had to waste half of each.

After lunch we went to the Cathedral of the Assumption in the grounds of the Castle. Once again we were provided with personal tape recorders with which we could get detailed descriptions of 50 or more points of interest: paintings, statues, and inscriptions. We had arranged to meet Mario at 1530 so unfortunately had to race through the museum attached to the Cathedral and the Castle. Mario drove us to an upmarket tourist resort on the North of the island, Xwieni, where we had a pleasant Cappuccino and enjoyed looking at the blue Mediterranean. It reminded us of our visit to Assos in Turkey only this time the Cappuccino was hot. There were many tourists here, both local and foreign; the day was so warm that a number of them were actually swimming. As evening was fast approaching we returned home and were joined for a late tea by Mario’s friend Joe.

Saturday November 3
A well deserved sleep-in till 0930 and then a walk to the famous Ggantija (Giantess) Temples near Xaghra! These are two megalithic temples and it is easy to see why later generations believed they were built by giants. The stones are huge, enormous and every stronger description you can come up with. The largest stone is 6m x 4m and weighs about 57 tonnes. It is also believed that the original walls were probably 16m high. Each temple has five semicircular niches and there are a few carvings to be seen on some of the stones. A short distance from the entrances to the temples are 2 audio panels where you can select your language and listen to an explanation of what you are looking at. This is the second occasion where we saw a number of tourists from overseas.

After we arrived home Mario kindly drove us to the 1200 ferry at Mgarr for the 30 minutes crossing back to the main island, then a 60-minute bus trip back to Valetta where we checked in at The Asti Guest house run by a sweet 80+-year-old lady. Unfortunately we were on the 3rd floor and as the building is hundreds of years old there was no lift so we humped our backpacks up the stone staircase.

Then it was off to 1730 Maltese mass at the Cathedral where we discovered later there would be an English Mass the next morning at the nearby church of St Barbara. At this stage B was rapidly going down with a nasty cough and cold so after a shared fish tea we had an early night while A tossed and turned wondering if we would have to abort the trip. Of course, B had no such intentions!

Sunday November 4
B spent the day in bed with her cough/cold while A collected emails and was thrilled to learn from the Internet that Tanjam had received 75 mm of rain, then he went on to the English Mass. In the afternoon A walked around Valetta and visited the War Museum and walked back along the Grand Harbour. B was/is green with envy as she had been looking forward to seeing the Grand Harbour and the National War Museum which houses one of the treasures of WW2—a tiny bi-plane named Faith. When Malta was attacked by air during the war she had only three small bi-planes, Faith, Hope and Charity, to defend her. Such was the determination of the pilots that the enemy believed there were many more planes. It was a gallant and successful effort although terrible damage was inflicted on Malta and its people. In 1942 the entire population of Malta was awarded the George Cross for its courage and efforts.

On his return he discovered that B was well enough to venture out for tea at about 1830. The first two restaurants did not open until 1900 and the next two closed at 1900!! We finally found something to eat and on the way home negotiated with a taxi driver to collect us the following morning and take us to the airport on our way to Tripoli, Libya. Initially we had hoped to travel from Malta to Libya by boat/ferry but unfortunately there was no regular sea service. Although it was only scheduled to be a one-hour flight the fare was $270 each!!

Monday November 5
By morning B had recovered considerably and was brave enough to tackle the next phase of our adventure – Libya. We were up at 0630, breakfast at 0730 and our taxi arrive right on time as arranged the previous night. This is not as easy as it sounds. The Asti is in a steep street consisting of steps unsuitable for cars and the nearest crossroad was one-way. Fortunately A decided to walk up to the main road and found our taxi. In Valetta there are lots of narrow one-way streets so our taxi, to B’s delight, had to take us a long way around to exit the town. Why was she delighted? Because he drove us round the Grand Harbour and she saw some of the sights she had missed seeing yesterday. By this stage, when it was time to leave, we were getting to know the geography of Valetta quite well. We arrived safely at the airport at 0830 for our 0930 flight.