Sue and Mo at Harris Beach

Sue and Mo at Harris Beach
Sue and Mo at Harris Beach

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Our Trip to Malta

The posts below this one will eventually tell the stories of our travels to Malta. In the mean time, there are links to the Picasa photo albums for each section of the trip. We traveled to Malta in the days before blogs, but definitely not before digital photos and I took many of them. The travel journal, however, is a handwritten tome in a heavy leather book that I carried with me. I am in the process of deciphering my handwriting and re-living the trip as I do so.

I realized as I worked on this project that my travel blog really IS for me and moana more than anyone else. I have always been a journal person so blogging has been a natural evolution for me. Soon the stories will accompany the photo links.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Exploring Valetta

Today we planned to join the group walking tour of Valetta. Our tour guide, Stephan, is Maltese and has lots of good inside information about the country. He wears really gorgeous scarves tied up European style and very tight pants. Ha! During our walking tour with the group we saw St John’s Cathedral and the Michelangelo Carraveggio painting of “The Beheading of St. John”, hailed as one of the finest paintings in the world. The cathedral was truly magnificent and I bought photo postcards to remember the details since flash photography wasn’t allowed in the interior.

We did a tour through the Grand Master Palace of the Knights of St John, another very ornate and heavy building, done in the Victorian and Rococco style so popular here in the late 19th century. The "armory" was just that, a large room filled with displays of heavy armor. Somehow when I go to the "armory" in Medford for an antique sale or something I don't think of something like this, but I will now.

The troupe dispersed and Mo and I wandered off to the Caffe Cordine for Irish coffee and cappuccino and I had my first really good pea pastizzo, a traditional Maltese street treat.

The part of the day I enjoyed most was a Museum of Archaeology. The real “Sleeping Lady” resides here. She is a small sculpture found in the Hypogeum from Malta’s prehistory, but she is stored here in this museum for preservation. She is quite small, just a few inches, and is held in a heavy bullet proof glass case with dramatic lighting. I have included here a link to the Wiki post for the Hypogeum and Hal Saflieni, the resting place of the Sleeping Goddess for more detailed information on this magical spot, a World Heritage Site, one of several in Malta.Ħal-Saflieni

I have always loved this sculpture and have a replica I kept beside my bed for years. I called her my “dreaming goddess”, and when I knew I was going to Malta, it was with a deep inner delight that I knew I was going to see the place where she was originally found.

It was another blustery day, but the clouds parted enough to give us a beautiful sunset from the upper Barraca Gardens while waiting for the Christmas lights to come on in Valetta. We wandered the narrow streets of Valetta, watching all the Christmas shopping, and enjoying the lights. After dark, we took the bus home to try for a dinner at LaVigne once more. This time it was open, but the owner was very quiet and slow and the meal wasn’t the least bit memorable. Some others of our group were there as well. Most people in our group tour seem to be quite interesting, diverse, and intelligent, and I think that may have something to do with the focus of Malta being more on history and culture rather than just “vacationing”. Of course, we picked Malta because it was in the Mediterranean and that seemed as though it might be a nice place to go in December. Ha!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Sliema and St Julian in the rain

Thunder is rolling around again and it is very dark and raining hard. We woke to a dramatic thunderstorm this morning and were so glad we hadn’t signed up for the day’s tour to the temple sites. Our original plans for the day included a walk on the Promenade, but with the hard rain pounding down, we returned to our room after breakfast for some reading and knitting.

At noon, we decided to brave the weather and go walking anyway and suited up in our coats and umbrellas for a walk toward the Grand Harbour and then back along the sea to St Julian. It was lovely in spite of the rain and maybe because of the rain since we had most of the streets to ourselves. The wild weather made for some huge waves along the sea wall that were fun to watch if you didn’t get too close.

One of the most delightful things about the towns of Malta are the limestone houses with their brightly colored doors and the traditional wooden Maltese balconies. The balconies are everywhere, at the front of every residence, and sometimes it’s a rather sobering thought to consider how many people are stacked and tucked into such a small space. According to the statistics, there are more than 1000 people per square kilometer on this island. The balconies are usually decorated nicely with Mediterranean plants and statuary, often religious.

The limestone is quarried on the island, and is the natural building material of choice since there is very little wood here. The only forest is a planted remnant that is held as a national treasure. As we flew in to Malta, the huge limestone quarries were visible from the air, with the multi-story buildings made from the same stone looking like a miniature bas relief inversion of the empty quarries. Most of the stone is a lovely pale golden color, but there are several shades reflected in the buildings. The island is really quite barren, and in the rural parts the stone is a big part of the landscape with natural rock outcrops, dry stone walls, and windswept cliffs along the sea. Malta is really just a big 9 mile by 17 mile rock of limestone with a civilization scratched into the golden surface. Here is a great website that has some good photos of these amazing quarries.

Grand Circle has a great program called “Dine-Around” where you can choose from several options for dinners out at local restaurants. On this evening we planned a dinner an Italian restaurant called LaVigne, but had to switch our choice to Argyll since LaVigne wasn’t even open. We wandered around the dark streets toward St Julian in the rain and found the Argyll restaurant which turned out to be the best meal we had in Malta by far. Lovely Mediterranean food, with really good wine and perfect service, in a small refined dining room with a view of the darkened wet streets. What a great meal!

After dinner we walked again down to the Promenade, but decided that a walk home through the city would be more fun than once more walking along the sea wall. We walked for some miles through narrow streets, seeing lovely churches, and thinking we were passing the same way we had come until we discovered that this church looked exactly like that church, and where exactly were we anyway??! Somehow we managed to wander to the opposite side of the peninsula and ended up at the Msida Yacht Club on the Strand. With all the streets at angles and all the buildings so tall and close it’s really hard to get a sense of where you are, especially in Sliema and St Julian, and while I usually have a fairly good sense of direction, the angles really threw me. Next time I’ll bring the GPS! All the wild wind and rain made the walk even more exciting and the wet streets reflected the city lights in ways that would never have been so brilliant on a less blustery night.

Back to our hotel, very wet, very happy, and very tired, we climbed the 4 flights of stairs for the last time for the day. So far we have managed to climb these stairs to the 4th floor at least twice a day; trying to be sure we get plenty of exercise, but maybe wandering around all day in the rain counts as well. Thank goodness for a good umbrella!

Monday, December 12, 2005

Northern Malta, Mosta, and Naxxar
We woke up in the middle of the night again, listening to the sounds of the Mediterranean and talked for a couple of hours, too wound up and excited to sleep, and maybe still on US time as well. Finally we fell back to sleep, but woke up just in time to dress for breakfast and leave for our Northern Malta Tour with the group by 8:45.

The day was truly beautiful, sunny and clear, not too warm. The big tour bus is such a cliché, but it still is a good way to see a lot of a country in the first days of unfamiliarity. We traveled to the northern part of the island, driving north through St Julian and other coastal towns to go to the Sanctuary of Our Lady at St Paul's beach in Mellieha. The sanctuary has been a holy place long before Paul and Luke were there, a place where the local people worshipped their goddesses before Paul christianized Malta. St Paul healed a Roman official when he first arrived to preach Christianity on the island in 60 AD. He was actually shipwrecked on this beach and was stranded in Malta for 6 months! The chapel is carved from a limestone cave and the local people have pilgrimaged there for centuries honoring “Our Lady”. It is always interesting to follow the history of these cultures as they move from their feminine face of God to accepting the western version of God as a male figure, yet keeping the Virgin and Our Lady so dear to their hearts. The presence of the Virgin in Malta is everywhere, and the people love her and honor her, and the many images of Mother and Child are lovely. The grotto was beautiful, with a restored painting of the Virgin holding Jesus in her right arm instead of her left as is the usual tradition in these kinds of paintings, and seemed to be of great significance artistically. The painting was supposedly done in the 1st century, but later studies have placed it somewhere aroune 1000 AD.

Back to the bus to continue through the countryside to Mosta, where we visited the cathedral hit by a bomb during WWII. Miraculously, the bomb landed in the center of the sanctuary during a mass but didn’t explode. The church was newer than most and very ornate. There is a museum in the church where the unexploded bomb is displayed. I would imagine it’s been deactivated somehow, but it looked fairly ominous.

Back on the bus to the town of Naxxar where we toured the Palace Paridisio and gardens, a dramatic feat of Victorian and Rococo style, very ornate and heavy and a bit overwhelming. The palace cat was a treat, however, and she even came down to join us for a light “snack” in the cafe which was as big as any lunch we have had so far, including dessert!

The late afternoon trip back to the hotel was through very heavy traffic into Sliema, which made us both very glad we weren’t driving. It’s a little bit disconcerting to be one of “them” high up on the tour bus overlooking life going on so far below. Riding along the narrow roads we could see life happening on the roofs, where the water is stored in big cisterns and delivered to the houses by gravity. A woman hanging clothes in the brilliant cool light, looked down on our bus and waved at us.

After returning to the hotel, we napped a bit and then went to the Maltese language lecture at 4:45. English and Maltese are both official languages in Malta, but Maltese is unique in that it is somewhat of a mixture of several languages of the various countries that have occupied Malta. It is the only Semitic tongue officially written in the Latin alphabet, with 30 letters , which makes it a bit easier to read as well. The most interesting fact about Maltese is that it was a spoken language, and thought to be common, spoken only by the lower class, and never was a written language, since the higher born Maltese people tried to emulate the English, and encouraged their children to speak English. Only since the 1970's have the Maltese people taken back their pride in their langauge, and developed it as a written language.

Malta was settled first by the Phoenicians, followed by the Carthiginians, the Arabs, and in 1530 by the Knights of St John. The history of the Knights of St John is incredible, and too complex to write about here, but they came from several European countries, and most of their languages left an influence on the Maltese language, but to me it still sounds like a soft sweet mixture of Hebrew and Arabic, with Italian overtones. I loved this language, love the intonation, and really enjoyed speaking it as much as possible.

After the lecture, neither of us could drum up the energy to go out and eat supper so we just rested, ate nuts and yogurt, and drank our wine from the local Tower Supermarket and went early to sleep to prepare for the next day of adventures.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

First explorations

This morning we wakened to fresh cool somewhat humid air. The sea was crashing against the sea wall and was a dark Prussian blue with that dark dark line between the sea and the sky. Sailboats are out in the morning in waves so high the big boats would disappear into the swells.

We ate a buffet breakfast at the Four Seasons here in the hotel before we left for our morning orientation meeting with Stephan, our tour guide. Breakfast was certainly not memorable, and as we were to discover, Maltese food in general wasn’t that great. The English influence here is very strong, with very little spice and things like broiled tomatoes, some rather tasteless sausages, and mushy dry potatoes. After breakfast, we went to the Hong Kong bank across the street to try to change money but I only managed to change ‘3’ $20 bills because the window ran out of money, and Mo had to use the cash machine. Exchange is $2.86 so we are estimating about 3 bucks US per Maltese LIRA as an average for our stay.

After the group orientation meeting we walked down to the “strand” for a light lunch of bruschetta and cappuccino at Cafe Tigne at a sidewalk table. The Strand was the main way to see the busy Maltese city life up close, with many people walking and talking and shopping. Most noticeable were the women’s shoes. Everyone seems to have taken on the Italian way of dressing, with Italian television shows now available in Malta, and very high very pointy stilettos are the shoe of choice for most women. Mo and I still wonder what in the world they did with their toes in these shoes! The cappuccino was good and the energy of the strand was high as usual, with lots of conversation and happy people all in a rush.

In the afternoon we joined an included tour for our group of the Three Cities, and to see a video movie called the “Malta Experience” in Valetta. The history of the heroism and trials of the Maltese people during world war 2 was enlightening. The history of the Grand Harbour and how it affected so many challengers to Malta was a theme that was repeated throughout our stay here, and began with this informative show.

Later, the bus toured around the Grand Harbor to Vittoriosa and we walked through old limestone buildings where people lived underground during WWII. Then more town walking and a visit o the Maritime Museum. For me, since this was my first trip to Europe, it was an incredible thrill to be walking these narrow winding streets, with uneven stone pavings, a thrill to be somewhere so completely new to me.

After the horrendous destruction of the bombings in WWII the local people left the old town, and eventually public housing replaced the grand houses that used to be here. Only recently have people started to return and fix the town up a bit as young families establish the old neighborhoods into something workable for this time.

As the day drew to a close, the sunset was truly breathtaking with domes and steeples silhouetted against the sky. In the dark we returned to the hotel to regroup and go back down to the Strand for dinner at Newman’s Place and conversation with the owner and John Rossi, a fellow traveler from Grand Circle. Stopped in at an Internet Café on the way home to check email and we were very happy to be in our own room by 9pm. The hotel room is completely comfortable, with an amazing view of the ocean looking north west, and the setting sun in the early evening. The hotel is even surrounded by a moat, now how European is that!

Friday, December 9, 2005

Traveling to Malta

We are on our way at last. We left Klamath this morning just a little bit after 10AM, Thursday December 8. Klamath wasn’t too bad, but HWY 97 was a solid sheet of ice all the way north and it was snowy to Oakridge on the west side of the Cascade Mountains. Very slow going, for sure! We drove straight through and got to Dan’s (Mo’s brother) house around 4pm, visited a bit and then went to the Olive Garden for supper. Home to bed by 830, getting ready for the big travel day to come.

And big day it has most certainly been. It’s all running together at the moment, sun shining in this Air Malta Airbus while we wait for takeoff. We have been awake now for more than 24 hours. It is noon here in London, center of the world, zero hours Greenwich Mean Time. Funny. I’m losing track of time it seems. Still waiting, the variety of humanity in this airport is amazing, all kinds of people. There is a whole plane load of family going to Ceylon, and another planeload of people who know each other going to Malta. It was an experience boarding this aircraft, lots of Muslim women with children. The Maltese language sounds melodic, somewhat Arabic, I think I will like learning this language

The flight from Portland to Chicago was fine, except for landing on the icy snowy runway, which just a little nerve racking. We made our connections to the big 777 to London, didn’t dawdle at all, only to sit on the plane for 2 hours before it would actually take off. Some story about fuel and maintenance. Don’t they get tired of repeating the same tired excuses? They gave us water and a really bad oat bar, but once we were airborne we did get free wine with our dinner. It was amazing to watch a long night pass in a few hours and we managed to get to London in time for our Malta flight in spite of the delay. Finally airborne, on the way to Malta. We just crossed the English Channel and will arrive in Malta at 4:30 this afternoon. I have completely lost track of exactly how many hours we have been traveling, what day it is here, what day it is at home, or anything else for that matter!