Look out Malta, here we come!
May 19, 2018
|Malta! What a beautiful and interesting place. It's popped up on my screen-saver and I've liked it! Malta s a little-known European island, a country all it's own, but gaining popularity amongst the young crowd. With English as one of its two official languages (Maltese being the other, with some similarity to Italian), it has become trendy for students to come practice their English for a few months, away from the disapproving eyes of their parents. Remember what that was like? Sadly, we were quickly reminded as we got off the plane, kids shrieking in the tunnel to the plane, shoving to get near each other on the Ryan air bus, generally acting the fools in a tight, inescapable space. Later we found out from our local connection, Eric, that the bar scene is pretty much the same, with an average age of 18 years old, and a resulting obnoxiousness that predictably goes along with that. OK, that's about all of the bad stuff I can say about this fantastic island nation.
Otherwise, there's so much to love about Malta! We had planned for about a week and totally ran out of time to see everything we wanted despite being almost constantly busy with food, wine, sights, and fun. We stayed with an airbnb family in Sliema, right across from the country's capital, Valletta, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the 2018 European Capital of Culture. Sliema is a popular spot with lots of waterfront bars, nice restaurants, cobblestone alleyways, and easy access to the capital via a picturesque boat trip across the bay. Malta also has an extensive bus system originating just outside of the capital, which provides transportation to all points on the island. Unfortunately, our first day out was a Sunday with very rough seas, so we delayed our visit to Valletta and decided to take a Hop-on, Hop-off bus from the Sliema harbor around the eastern part of the island to get our bearings, as well as check out the Blue Grotto (ok, this is not Capri's Blue Grotto, set your expectations accordingly). While these bus trips came highly recommended, we found ours somewhat irksome as many of the headsets didn't work, and the scrum at the end of the day to get on board was a mess. Still, it gave us a nice overview and we really got a sense of how extensive Malta's ornate and imposing architecture is, not only limited to the capital but dispersed throughout the island (including the three cities, as well as Rabat and Mdina).
We also got a little taste of the island's history via these tours. The island was built primarily by the Grand Masters (which did not include Grand Master Flash). These Grandmasters came to the island in the 1500's after being expelled from Rhodes by the Turks (under Sulieman the Magnificent). Charles V, head of the Holy Roman and Spanish empires, (including the conquistadors of South America and related to a whole lot of Christian Europe, including the Austrian Hapsburgs), granted them the island. Amidst bouts of fighting off the Ottomans, the Grandmasters built the Palace and the Cathedral in Valletta, giving many nods to their own perceived greatness along the way. Then the French took over, and then in the 1800's, the English took over and thus English was established as the prevailing language. Malta eventually got their independence in 1964. Besides the fun little train trip around Valletta, the two recommended highlights would include the palace and the cathedral. In particular, Hef was still intrigued by that crazy Caravaggio and this time we made sure to go see his paintings in the St. John's Co-Cathedral (called a co-cathedral since it shares a bishop with the church in Mdina). Caravaggio was known as having a terrible temper and a history of murder, and fled several Italian cities before landing at Malta. He was then rumored to have been killed by the knights, who were fed up with him. Still, he left the world some amazing paintings. The cathedral had truly great art and worth a trip, especially since we had seen the platter that supposedly held the head of St. John the Baptist back in Genova. Make sure to go to the second level to take in the entire church, particularly the inlaid marble mosaics on the floor and the brilliant gold leaf decor and carvings in all the side chapels devoted to France, England, Germany, and of course, the Grand masters. The entrance fee is pricey but the inside of the church is one of the most stunning and interesting that we have seen. Thanks to Hef for pushing the issue!
We devoted another day to seeing the hypogeum. I had read that we needed to make reservations in advance, and I was certainly glad we did. The site visit consists of both the film and a tour of the site, or just a film (which is a bit of a booby prize, better than nothing but nowhere near as interesting as the site). The site was sold out for almost two months when we were there. Buy your tickets early!
The site was used as an underground burial site perhaps as early as 4000 BC, and then its usage amped up in 2500 BC, resulting in as many as 7000 people being buried there altogether. As you go through the eery underground caverns, you can't help but think about all those bodies they found and the people who took care of them. When one pit filled up to a certain height, they carved another window and kept on going. When one pit filled up, they dug another. Could you imagine what it must have smelled like, how ghastly it must have been to work down there? Anyway, it's well worth finding out, so make sure to work this into your itinerary. Remember that there are no photos there but per usual I have a few sneaky postcard photos to give you a sense of the space.
Secure with our hard-earned tickets, we easily took the bus out early to the little town of Paola. We got there early and made sure we were all set, then had plenty of time to see another site nearby, the Tarxiem temples. Thinking this was just a way to pass some time, imagine our pleasant surprise when this turned into an incredibly cool site to visit in its own right. This UNESCO World Heritage site is an extensive stone complex of structures built between 3600 and 2500 BC and re-used between 2400 and 1500 BC. The site was also discovered in the early 1900's, just after the hypogeum, by a farmer. I just love imagining the farmer's delight at this. It's like the farmer who agreed to have the Lord of the Rings filmed on his property and now basically has a money-making machine akin to Disneyland in his own backyard. Anyway, both of these should not be missed, so make a point of seeing them on Malta.
Now I'm always a sucker for a multicultural show, so we made sure to check out the one at Ta Marija. The woman and her son that own this restaurant were absolutely delightful and welcoming, instantly making us feel at home and carefully explaining how everything worked so there would be no surprises. The All Inclusive Evening, which includes the folkloric show, is about 60 euros pp with round-trip transport. With the free-flowing local wine, you will not want to leave getting home to chance. The food was absolutely fantastic and they did their best to keep the drinks coming. Now the show...I don't know...if you check out the website, you will see everything the entertainment entails...several girls dressed up in lovely elegant dresses and some delightful old Maltese men playing guitar. I thought we would get more of a range of outfits and dances, but you know those Grand masters, they had a lot of money and this clearly shows it. Hef became enamoured with one of the dancers, and she got him up on stage...so for us, watching him dance around made the evening worth it for sure!
I'd like to make one additional shout-out on the big island of Malta to the aquarium. The trip out there showed us yet another part of the island. I was super excited to identify some of the fish we saw snorkeling at the Blue Lagoon (and later in the waters off Gaios, Greece), and the trip to the aquarium really helped with that. If you like aquariums, it's definitely a nice one with some great talks by the employees on interesting topics.
As previously mentioned, the huge Maltese platters and delicious local food (think seafood in a variety of styles, including Italian and sushi) is a huge draw. But wine tasting is always on the top of our hit list and Malta did not disappoint. I contacted Marsovin Cellars and they quickly responded with a confirmation for a visit. Due to construction, we had a little difficulty getting there as our bus changed route and we walked quite a ways. No worries, it was still absolutely worth doing. The tour into the cellars with long rows of barrels includes a taste of the still-aging liquid, and then upstairs the fun begins. They set out nice platters of nibblers and offered several tastes and discussion of the various qualities of their wine. Our enthusiastic guide spent quite a bit of extra time with us, talking about the vineyards where they harvest their grapes, including the local red Gellewza, which we particularly liked, as well as the various labels of their wines. We absolutely loved their 1919 Red wine (which accompanied an absolutely scrumptious meal at Ta Kris, a restaurant in Sliema) which sadly was all sold out. But the prices were ridiculously low for the quality. Hef even found a Caravaggio label! Too bad we couldn't bring any with us on the plane. But if (and when) we return to Malta, we will make sure to order Marsovin wine.
On an odd note, we had an early flight from Malta to Bari on Ryan air. Suffering from a serious lack of coffee and sensory overload on all the unavoidable duty free shops, I was totally unprepared for the immigration officer's questions regarding our time in the EU. "Did you arrive on....?" "Uh, yes??" "NO!" Fran quickly corrected me. "Did you arrive on....?" "Uh, yes????" "NO!" Fran again corrected me and pulled up the google calendar. Finally, we figured out that we had entered the EU at Palermo, at night, at the sketchy port following the super-delayed GNV ferry. The immigration stamp was totally illegible except for the date. "Bad stamp. Bad stamp." The immigration official shook his head but eventually let us through. Maybe it was a particularly difficult immigration crossing in Malta, or maybe we needed to be more on top of getting a better stamp in Italy. Regardless, thank goodness Fran put together that google calendar. Now I have an app to refer to when memory fails me. And coffee!