Sunday – 25.12
We travelled to Malta on Christmas Day, with a direct Air Malta flight from Tel Aviv. Our hotel was located in St. Julian’s, facing Balluta Bay on the Northern shores of Malta. As it was still early to check in, we took a walk along the promenade, which was quite deserted; not surprising, considering the date and the fact it was rather chilly, even though the sun was out most of the time. We walked through the quiet streets of Sliema, a residential neighbourhood with a pleasant mix of old and new buildings.
After checking in and receiving our room (upgraded thanks to my status; thank you SPG), we were too tired to leave it again, so we had a lazy late afternoon. We organized lunch with some food we brought from home, and ate it on the balcony of our hotel room, overlooking the bay, and, beyond it, the Mediterranean (the view is quite impressive).
After finishing the meal, my son asked about dessert, and just as we were deciding what to have for dessert, there was a knock on the door. As a welcome gift, a plate of chocolates and a bottle of wine (which we exchanged for a few bottles of water) were delivered by the hotel staff. We are still searching the room for listening devices…
Later, we watched “The Maltese Falcon” on DVD, which I thought was appropriate given our location. My son couldn’t get over the fact the movie was made seventy (!) years ago and all of the actors were long dead. He didn’t think “video”, as he put it, was around back then.
We lit six Chanuka candles and retired to an early night.
Monday – 26.12
First morning in a long time that I didn’t wake up with an alarm clock, or the sounds of my children or my wife getting up for school/work. And yet, I was up by 8:30am. Upon opening the curtains, I was greeted, on my first ever morning in Malta, with this magnificent view of Balluta Bay:
We left the hotel and took a bus into Valletta, the capital city. The weather was mostly sunny, but the strong winds and high waves were early warnings of what was to come. The bus terminal in Valletta is conveniently located at the entrance to the old city, which is where everybody was heading anyway. This medieval city, like many in Europe, has become a shopping mecca. However, it is big enough to have many side streets that are not spoilt with commerce and where one can enjoy some peace and quiet, watching the distinct architecture of Valletta.
We headed to the Upper Barrakka gardens, which offer some breathtaking views of the bay, as well as the “three cities” to the east of Malta:
Underneath the balcony from which these pictures were taken stands the Saluting Battery, a remnant of the old city cannons that used to announce the passing of noon and other important events. A few minutes before noon, a lone uniformed soldier uncovered the leftmost cannon and prepared it for the daily firing. Precisely at noon, on the last chime of the cathedral bells, he shouted out something indistinct and pulled the fuse. There was a loud bang, the throng of tourists duly applauded, and that was that.
We stopped for coffee at a local place, and their cappuccino was remarkably good: the right mix of coffee and milk with the perfect amount and consistency of foam. I find that in most places outside of Italy (where you can get a perfect coffee almost everywhere, even in gas stations), unless you know where to go, baristas have a difficult time coming up with a decent cup of the stuff. This coffee shop in Valletta (unfortunately, I don’t recall its name), therefore deserves a special mention.
As does a pharmacy on the main street of Valletta, sporting this sign:
The most formidable structure in the Valletta is the co-Cathedral of St. John’s. My son asked what the “co” stood for; I had no idea. We thought perhaps it meant several Christian denominations shared the cathedral. As that as likely as two Jews sharing the same synagogue on a desert island, we looked it up. Turns out “co” is short for “conventual”, i.e. the place served also as a convent, hence the duality. Having paid 6 Euros each, we entered this magnificent structure, a monument to the wealth of the Catholic Church. Truth is, the frescoes and statues are indeed impressive, but the most outstanding feature of this cathedral is the Caravaggio paintings it hosts; particularly the large painting of the beheading of John the Baptist, hanging up in the oratory. From the audio commentary I learnt about the chiaroscuro style, characteristic of Caravaggio’s work. Unfortunately, photos of the painting are not allowed.
We then headed all the way down to St. Elmo’s fort and some more beautiful views of the bay. By this time, the wind had really picked up and the first drops of rain started falling. A storm was heading for the island, as was clear from the waves:
We made our way indoors for a late lunch (some unremarkable sushi) and a taste of the local beer: Cisk. The ride on the bus back to St. Julian’s was longer, due to some heavy traffic in Sliema. A visit to the hotel fitness centre, a relaxing soak in the hotel pool, and we were ready to light the seventh candle of Chanuka and head to bed. Tomorrow, we plan to visit Gozo, the northern island of Malta.
Tuesday – 27.12
Today was a long day. We booked a sightseeing tour to go see Gozo, the northern island of Malta; one of those hop-on, hop-off buses, with the open roof, where you get to meet and spend the day with annoying people of many nationalities. A bus picked us from the hotel to take us to Cirkewwa, the northernmost point of the island of Malta, where the ferry leaves for Gozo. The crossing takes about 20-25 minutes, arriving at Mgarr harbour.
Our first stop on Gozo island was Ggantija, site of ancient temples, dating back to between 3600 and 2400 BC, allegedly making them among the earliest standing man-made structures in the world (older than the Pyramids or Stonehenge). It was raining pretty heavily, so we just had a quick look inside these ruins before heading for shelter.
The next stop was the cave of Calypso. According to Greek mythology, the nymph Calypso seduced and kept Ulysses prisoner in this cave for seven years. A short walk from the bus stop took us to a platform with a stunning view of the sea. But we saw no cave, although I’m sure there must have been one somewhere. The view alone was worth the stop.
We asked a young woman who was with us on the platform to take our picture. She was with two other women, and as I heard them speak English, Italian and Russian I asked where they were from. The answer sounded like a bar joke: they were three students – a Turk, a Russian and a Ukranian – studying in Bologna.
Hopping back on the bus, we headed to Victoria, the capital of Gozo, also known as Rabat (not to be confused with the Rabat on the island of Malta, or Rabat, the capital of Morocco).
During the drive, we noticed that electricity lines are very peculiar. Instead of electricity poles, the lines weave their way through the buildings themselves. So basically, if you live on the first or second floor of the building, chances are you’ll have electricity lines going through the length of your balcony. I wonder what all that electromagnetic current does to the average Maltese brain.
At Victoria, we climbed up the road from the bus terminal to get to the most striking building in the city: the Citadel. This fortified castle is a true marvel: alleys, staircases and buildings spread over the top of a hill, dating back to medieval times. The views from the top of the Citadel were absolutely stunning; the rain had stopped, and the sun was making attempts to break through the clouds, making visibility clear in all directions. Unless something spectacular pops up in the next couple of days, this will surely qualify as the highlight of our trip. Here are some pictures:
Moving on, we headed to our last stop on the island: the village of Dwejra, home to the most famous site on Gozo, the Azure Window. This natural phenomenon, pictured below, was created when two limestone caves collapsed. Much like a dolmen, two gigantic columns, each about 40 metres in diameter, support a horizontal block, about 100 metres long and 20 metres high. This creates a “window” through which the azure sea (the sea here is deep, hence the colour) can be seen, hence the name “Azure Window”. The rock surface we walked on to reach the window was a phenomenon in itself: the rock was laced with the remains of crustaceans, as if someone took thousands of ceramic vases and broke them over the entire area.
(Warning: there is one coffee shop next to the Azure Window. Whatever you do, even if you are dying of thirst, do not get a coffee or a hot chocolate there. Trust me on this).
By this time it was already 4pm and getting dark. We took the next bus straight to the harbour to catch the ferry back to the island of Malta. We were pretty tired by the time we arrived, but unfortunately our day was not to end so quickly. The bus that took us back to the hotel broke down and we had to wait for another bus to come pick us up. A journey of 30 minutes ended up taking almost an hour and a half. Fortunately we had a sympathetic family from Haifa with us on the bus, which helped pass the time.
Back at the hotel we lit eight candles on this last day of Channuka, and placed the channukia facing the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, itself all lit up for Christmas. You can just see it in the background of the picture below:
Wednesday – 28.12
Nothing to report today. We decided to have an extremely lazy day. Got up late, spent some time in the pool, read and fell asleep by the pool, went for a short walk, spent some time in the gym. That’s pretty much it. We retired early to bed, for a well-deserved rest.
Tomorrow, our last day in Malta, should be more eventful.
Thursday – 29.12
For out last day in Malta, we took another hop-on, hop-off bus, this time to the northern part of the island. The bus drove through Valletta and on to the centre of the island. We got off at Tá Qali, to visit the Malta Aviation Museum. This is a three-hangar complex, housing planes and other paraphernalia from World War II, during which Malta was a base for the Royal Air Force. The museum had a rundown look and could use some renovation, although some of the planes were in very good condition. There was also a chart of rescues made of pilots whose planes went down in the sea (see picture), noting who was recovered alive and who was not.
Hopping back on the bus, we travelled the short distance to Mdina, the old capital of Malta. Its origins may be traced back 3,500 years ago. Basically, it’s a renovated old city, in the tradition of such old cities across Europe. In the middle of the city lies the cathedral, facing a fairly large square. The entire area has a very touristy feel to it, much more than in the old city of Victoria on Gozo island (see above). For example, there were the obligatory horse-driven carriages, with the odd Japanese or English tourists atop them, looking dumbfounded. To top it all, the horses all had a feather stuck on their head. We fled from Mdina to stroll through the streets of Rabat. The rain caught up with us in front of the Church of St. Paul, but we couldn’t complain, as most of the day we had fair weather.
The bus then drove through Golden bay and St. Paul’s Bay, two resort areas that looked pretty gloomy and abandoned. (My son notes that I was asleep during this part of the journey, so no wonder everything looked abandoned…). We got off at Buggiba, another resort town in the northeastern part of Malta. The town was infested with English tourists, most of whom were sipping beers; I hate to think what the place looks and smells like during the summer months.
We headed to the Malta Classic Car Museum, not hoping for much after the Aviation Museum. But, we were pleasantly surprised, as this museum was a real gem. For 7 Euros we gained access to two floors, housing a wide array of cars and motorcycles – British, German, Italian, American and more – all in pristine condition. There were fancy cars, such as old Spyders and Corvettes, as well as standard cars, like the Fiat 500 or the Ford Cortina. It was a shame one couldn’t touch the cars or sit in them. Oddly enough, there were also a couple of new Subarus and a Fiat Punto. Here are some pictures from this lovely museum:
That was our last stop of the day. The bus took us back to St. Julian’s, where we spent the last few hours in Malta languishing in the hotel lobby, waiting for our middle-of-the-night flight back to Israel.
In summary, Malta has turned out to be a surprisingly beautiful holiday destination. This is not big news, as apparently there are two million tourists who visit the island every year (approximately four times the local population). Even though most of them probably come here for the beaches and the sea sports, it is the history of the place and the landscapes that are, in my opinion, what makes Malta almost magical.