Better late than never, eh?
This, as you may have noticed, is one exceedingly overdue blog entry! The truth of the matter is, Pete and I are now back home in New Zealand. The mortgage is well and truly blown, and we are now trying to get back to reality and deal with houses and jobs and all that jazz. To be honest, our energy and enthusiasm for travelling was somewhat depleted during our last couple of months on the road, which I why I haven't been providing updates. I still think it's worth finishing off the last few entries, though; partly for the sake of completeness, and partly because we did actually learn a thing or two while we were away, and this info might be useful to those who are just starting out on their adventures. So, enough with the excuses! Here's what happened in Malta...
I have some strange whims, me. I really wanted to visit Malta despite knowing next to nothing about the place. If I’m being totally honest, the few things I did know could be written on the back of a bus ticket. Look:
I didn’t have a bus ticket handy, so I wrote ‘em on Post-it note instead.
If you can add anything at all to this list, you are more well-informed than me.
Of course, there had to be more to Malta than this, so I spent an hour or so with my friend Google and did some proper research. Here are a few factoids that I found:
- Malta consists of an archipelago of islands, only three of which are inhabited (Malta Island, Gozo and Comino).
- The two official languages are Maltese and English, but Italian is also widely spoken.
- Malta gained independence from the UK in 1964.
- It has been invaded umpteen times, and ruled by many nations.
- The entire island was awarded the George Cross in 1942, for the Maltese people’s bravery during the second Siege of Malta.
- Parts of the movie Gladiator were filmed here (the scenes set in Ancient Rome).
- And, finally, some people believe that Malta was the location for the Lost City of Atlantis.
Anyway, because apartments have been working well for us recently, we decided to rent another one for a couple of weeks. We totally lucked out – this was by far the nicest apartment we’ve stayed in on this trip.
Because we were going to be there for a while, we decided to hire a car. Taxis are expensive, and the buses didn’t seem to run too regularly. This worked out well for us, ‘cos it meant we could get to tourist destinations easily, and drive to a decent-sized supermarket which was way cheaper than the local mini-mart. (I was happy to discover that Maltese supermarkets stock many of the brands I know and love from the UK!)
Driving was... interesting. The roads are not great: many are very narrow and in a state of disrepair, and signs/directions were intermittent, making navigation tricky. The locals were not as crazy as in other countries we’ve visited, but they were very impatient, and didn’t seem to know what their mirrors were for. One other blogger I found described it like this: “Driving in Malta is easy - if you have eyes at the back of your head.” I would like to add, “And in your ears,” ‘cos the number of people who just swing out of side roads without looking is truly frightening! Still, Pete seemed to get the hang of it easily enough, and we returned the hire car with no additional dings or dents.
So, having hired a car, off we went to explore the island.
Malta is a great place for anyone who likes their history... or prehistory. The island is full of well-preserved prehistoric sites, such as the Tarxien Temples and Ghar Dhalam Cave.
Tarxien is a megalithic temple complex built between 3600 and 2500 BC. Items from Prehistoric times suggest that it was used it for rituals and animal sacrifice, and in the Bronze age it was used for cremations.
Stone balls found near the entrance suggest that Ugg and his pals rolled the megaliths into position. Sounds like hard work to me. They should have used dinosaurs like Fred Flintstone.
Ghar Dalam ("Cave of Darkness") contains earliest evidence for human settlement in Malta.
Deposits were found that spanned a period of 130,000 years, including fossils from animals that died at the end of the Ice Age, to pottery and tools used by prehistoric and neolithic man.
Note for travellers to Malta:
If you are interested in stuff like this and get the chance, visit the Hypogeum of Hal-Saflieni, the only underground prehistoric temple in the world. We were disappointed - we'd left it too late to get tickets. It’s not so bad in the winter, but in high season they sell out weeks in advance. Learn from our mistake and book early!
We did get to spend some time underground, however, when we went to see the catacombs of St Paul. Now, I know all about St Paul, thanks to that world-famous historian, Eddie Izzard (*)
(*) Warning: Contains swearing and religious themes. Do not watch if you are likely to be offended.
Actually, the catacombs don’t have anything to do with St. Paul other than the fact that they are near his church and grotto (**). They contain subterranean tombs that held over one thousand bodies.
(**) Where the Apostle was believed to have taken refuge after being shipwrecked in 60 AD.
This was a fabulous way to get our daily exercise. Some of the catacombs are closed off to tourists, but there was enough open to keep us occupied for about 40 minutes. I’d also recommend taking a torch, ‘cos a few of the areas are accessible but unlit. Great fun! (Confession: I made Pete go into the dark areas first in case there were spiders.)
Another place worth seeing is the ancient capital of Malta, an impressive mediaeval walled town in the centre of the island.
The protective wall was built by the Phoenicians, and the feeling of seclusion persists today. Vehicles are severely restricted here (necessarily so, due to the many narrow streets), earning it the nickname 'The Silent City'.
Of all the places we visited in Malta, I’d say that this one was the most touristy. As well as your usual palazzos and chapels, there were also attractions such as the Mdina Dungeons (supposedly scary; I don’t know for sure, ‘cos we didn’t see it), a Medieval Times exhibit (quite frankly, a waste of money), and a waxwork exhibition detailing the history of the Knights of Malta (***).
These guys (who went by a number of names, including the Knights Hospitaller, the Order of Hospitallers and the Order of St John) were a Christian Military organisation that started in the Middle Ages. They began as acommunity of monks who helped looked after patients at the Hospital of St John in Jerusalem, but later became a military outfit that helped protect Crusader territory in the Holy Lands.
The Order was eventually forced from their original home by the Turks, so they ended up in Malta in 1530. They stayed for over 260 years, and were in large part responsible for making the country into a well-defended and much-coveted island.
Me and some waxwork Knights. The audio doo-hickey I am wearing was a pretty good system, if a little poor in sound quality. The commentary was remotely activated as you approached the exhibits, so you didn't have to worry about typing in numbers or anything like that.
Like Mdina, St. Julian’s Bay is also set up for tourists, although it has a very different look and feel. It’s a popular coastal town full of restaurants and nightclubs (and, while we were there, lots of Brits standing around watching the World Cup in bars and looking disappointed).
Ooh, and while I’m on the subject of restaurants, I can highly recommend that veggie fans try the Maltese salad. It’s a filling combination of lettuce, sun-dried tomatoes, cucumbers and olives, with feta cheese, Maltese sausage, Maltese biscuits and traditional bean dip called Bigilla.
Finally, if you want to escape crowds for a while and have a peaceful walk in pretty surroundings, we found two lovely gardens. The first was the Chinese Garden of Serenity in Santa Luċija. The place was deserted, so I’m not sure many people know about it.
The second was the gardens of San Anton Palace, the official residence of the Maltese president. They are formal gardens, with long walkways, ornamental ponds and sculptures. There are many varieties of plants from around the world, which makes it a great place to take a stroll, ‘cos the trees provide much-needed shade.
All in all, Malta was a surprise. It’s a small island with a great selection of things to see and do – we could easily go back for another two weeks and not be bored. I guess this was one occasion when my strange whim was worth paying attention to!
That's all for now. I'll post another entry very soon.