Sunday, July 20, 2014

YandA go to Malta

DAY 1 Sunday 13.7.2014 
At 0230 YandA were in a taxi going from Kiryat Ono to the airport. The night before they had attended a 50th wedding anniversary dinner party near Jerusalem, slept a bit and now, all sleep-sodden and bleary-eyed, they were on their way to catch the 0530 Air Malta flight to Valletta. Murphy was of course sleeping the sleep of the just in his kennel/hotel, but YandA were taking retirement seriously and protecting their progeny from the curse of inherited wealth.

The aircraft was off the ground at 0600 and a few hours later YandA were in Malta. 

A bus dropped them at the Intercontinental, but since it was morning the rooms were not immediately ready. We eventually got into a room, unpacked and went out to see the town of St.Julians, an outlying suburb of Valletta. It displays the usual tourist scene, since tourism is the prime business of Malta.

We wandered down to the beach, had a pleasant chat about Balkan politics etc. with a young Macedonian, who had served on merchant ships whose security crews were young Israelis fresh out of the army. He did not try to sell us his wares, which consisted of tickets for water skiing trips. The beach was a typical Mediterranean beach of the type we know well, with the usual display of poverty of young women who cannot afford a complete bathing suit.

Poverty-stricken tourist


The sand is a bit rough and grainy compared with the fine-grained sand provided to our beaches by the Nile. The marina contained a colorful selection of boats. This scene repeated itself all around Malta, where the water is a clear, deep blue and it is enticing to take a boat trip to plumb its depths or just gaze into them.

We found a pleasant restaurant for lunch. While discussing the dessert menu with our charming young waitress, appropriately dressed in black as a minion of Lucifer, we asked her if Satan owned the restaurant. She laughed, said of course and immediately crossed herself. The Church is strong in Malta.  Satan, however,  also seems to be doing well there, for the slogan "what happens in Malta stays in Malta" appears quite often on media ranging from tee shirts to condom wrappers. The hotel is surrounded  by various establishments catering to all conceivable needs, at all hours of the day or night. If you happened to forget your nargila at home, there is no problem.
Relax and enjoy life
Partying starts early and it is difficult to escape the noise on the street except in the refuge of the hotel. We saw a sign – "if the noise is too loud, you are too old." Perhaps we are.

After lunch we adjourned to the room and had a well-earned siesta. Then we made plans for the rest of the week and explored the shopping center again, looking for a parasol-cum-umbrella. Finally we bought another cheap Chinese product which of course reversed itself in the first breeze..
AND in the evening watched the final of the Mondial at an outside table at the Hotel restaurant in company with Germans, others and enthusiastic passers-by. Obviously it is not easy to compete with football, but some try.

Day 2 Monday 14.7.2014
Was spent in Valletta, the capital. Having decided we were on holiday, we started most of our days late, and paid the price, but on the other hand, toured at our own pace and saw more intensively the sites we intended to see. Today we took a taxi into town, and enjoyed very much the services of Paul, a history graduate who earned more money as driver of a taxi than he could in his profession. We had an interesting talk on the way. 

One cannot visit Malta without taking in the history, and they talk of the Great Siege by the Saracens which they beat off in 1565, to their glory and that of God, and the horrible bombing and siege by the Axis 1940-42.

The capital is small and walkable, and there are many interesting sites within easy reach.Everything of importance was built or rebuilt later than the  take-over of Malta by the Order of the Knights of St. John in 1530. 
Maltese Cross, badge of the Knights of St. John
The streets are mostly pedestrian, bordered by "auberges" – the various frat houses of the Knights of the Order from different countries and "langues", well maintained and now serving mostly as official buildings but still retaining their original style and decorations.  
Auberge d'Italie now a post office

The Co-Cathedral (so-called because there is another one in the same diocese so it cannot be called THE Cathedral) is of course a must, but we are to a certain extent snobs and not very much in love with baroque style.

The palace of the Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of St. John is now the seat of parliament and the residence of the President.

Overlaying that are the remnants of a very short French occupation (an ancient – for males only - public toilet of the Vespasienne persuasion) 

and the very present evidence of a recent British past – the modern words inserted into an Arabic-cum-Latin-Italian language, the driving on the left, the red post-boxes and telephone booths and the blinking Belisha beacons at pedestrian crossings. Everyone (almost) speaks good English except the poor French student who came for an English course and was lost outside the archeological site…

We had happened upon the festival of St George (he of dragon fame) and the streets wherever we went, even the narrowest, were bannered accordingly in red and gold, interspersed with the ubiquitous Maltese cross. 

We even encountered the marching band (nothing to do with tourism of course, although they had postponed the Saint's day from April in the interests of good weather..).
Oom Pa Pa
We lunched in a cave (the downstairs of a restaurant) on very good fish (which of course is legion) and went on to see the Knights' Hospitaliers' Hospital, now the Mediterranean Conference Center where the end of the Cold War treaty was signed. We were offered a combined ticket to an historical film, so we rested our feet and took that in as well, actually enjoying it the very much, with Derek Jacobi lending the commentary and playing role  of the main hero, the 16th century Grand Master, Jean Parisot de La Valette, who defeated the Turks in 1565 and after whom the city of Valletta is named.

The tour of the hospital

shows impossibly long halls – 155 meters- where patients lay in straight lines (every nurse's dream!), one to a numbered bed–and a toilet if you were a knight, three to a bed and a toilet if you were a slave or of a lower class.
Toilet niches in the huge ward

Women were treated by nuns. 500 knights could be accommodated in the same ward, colour-coded by diagnoses.. And according to my history teacher, special food was provided for Jews and Muslims, too. In the 19th century in the UK the first ambulance service and the teaching of first aid was set up by the reestablished English Knights of St. John who had been disbanded by Henry VIII in 1540. They remained the only public ambulance service in the Kingdom until the founding of the National Health Service after WWII. There are still branches of St. John's ambulance and health service around the world. Y's father was a member of the service during the War, teaching and applying First Aid among his other activities.
Joe Isaacs as a St. John's ambulance volunteer

We viewed the massive ramparts, all facing Africa and eastwards – which, it seems, do not prevent massive incursions of illegal immigrants landing on their shores, but no mention or sight was made of them. Returning to our starting point we acceded to the offer of a carriage ride, 

after which we called it a day.

Day 3 Tuesday 15.7.2014
We had decided to go by public transport to the ancient capital of Mdina-Rabat. This was interesting indeed, but combined with our late start and the hour's journey brought us there almost in time for lunch.  We made our brave start, however, and were enchanted with the small city and its antique atmosphere, seemingly little changed since the Arabs who walled it off were driven out. However it is the location of several Holy Christian sites connected to St. Paul, who was shipwrecked on the island, and an ancient Roman house.

We paid adequate homage to the church and museum and bishop's residence, 

wandered the streets and alleys
Security is tight in Mdina

and then had lunch at a table overlooking the flat plain leading to the sea. We were joined by hungry guests.

By the time we got to the Roman ruins it was too late to view them and obviously too late to try to get into the old city of Rabat. So we decided to try to get to the archeological site of Haghar Qim which we were assured was open to viewing. However, what we did not know was that we had just missed the once-an-hour bus and wasted an hour waiting, which brought us to the site too late for the (obviously) officially guarded and circumscribed visit. We were allowed a peek from a distance, just enough to whet our appetites and took the next bus (of which by that time we knew the schedule) via the airport back to the hotel.

was more successful. This time we decided to conserve our time and energies and took a taxi (unfortunately not Paul) directly to Haghar Qim, the site of Neolithic temples from approx. 5000 years ago. These, to the loss of drama, are protected from the elements by thin steel awnings, and being smaller than Stonehenge are less impressive from a distance. They are also monitored by an automated meteorological station, a juxtaposition of the very modern with the very ancient.

However, close up, one can still marvel at the concerted effort it must have taken to move these up to 6.5 ton megaliths and put them into place. 

The guide at the similar site on Gozo told us that this had just as valid a claim to be the cradle of civilization as Mesopotamia, but of course something stopped them in mid-course – famine, drought, inbreeding, war? And they were stuck, more or less on an island, even if they did venture out to sea, so there was no continuation of their culture. The Bronze Age came, the Phoenicians came and went, and the rest is history.
From there, accompanied by the lost French student to whom we could only talk when we discovered the common language and found that she had been going in the wrong direction, we went to the Blue Grotto, a famed diving spot. After taking a short boat ride across the clear waters 

and into a couple of caves we had

a well-earned lunch overlooking the bay and bussed back to Valletta. There we took in a very interesting exhibition of 100 objects from Malta's history, including the George Cross for Gallantry awarded to the people of Malta under bombardment during World War II, where it was the most bombed site in all of Europe. And reviewed the rest of the history of Malta as shown in objects from the various sites. The lady here has been sleeping well for at least 2,500 years.

Coming back Y tried once again (and this time succeeded) to take a picture of what looked like a cathedral in Valletta which repeatedly showed itself at every turn of the road from the bus through a tree..
Catholic dome and Anglican spire

Finally she got a good shot at it, but could not identify it on any map or index. What becomes clear in this photo and was told to us by the guide on Gozo the next day was that it was two separate churches, one seen against the background of the other, that made up the distinctive, well-known silhouette of Valletta. The spired edifice is an Anglican church dating from the days of British colonial rule.
Descending the back streets behind the hotel, looking for a short cut which did not exist, we found ourselves in the heart of the red-light district, the mildest evidence of which were the nargillas at an outdoor cafĂ© (see picture above). 
All tastes gratified
The noise, at 8pm was already deafening, attacking us from all sides, and despite our amusement, we escaped rapidly.

Day 5 Thursday 17.7.2014 The Other Island (Gozo)
For this day we decided to take an organized tour. It was definitely a good idea, although the guide was somewhat fast for us, being constrained by time limits for the restaurant and the ferry. Several people walking with sticks decided to opt out of certain parts of the trip, but we slogged on and of course were always last in line, sometimes missing commentary or instructions. All in all, however, it was a very positive day.
We were taken from the hotel to the ferry (no, there is no landing-strip on Gozo, which belongs to Malta, but is independently supported by UNESCO and the European Union).

Gozo has a race track for horses which can serve in an emergency for a plane. The island has 30 churches for 30,000 Catholics – each more resplendent than the last. There is of course a certain amount of competition, we were shown the bell which was built as a larger bell than the previous one (which was in turn cast to be bigger than the one cast by the previous priest and so on) which turned out to be too wide for the belfry and cannot move! 
Note the bell on the left, stuck in the belfry
It appears that while remodeling one church, the local priest won the lottery and so was able to rebuild and refurbish far beyond the needs of his local community. This was obviously not condemned by his establishment.
We visited the museum of the Neolithic site where the objects found near the temple (or their replicas) were displayed: a double figurine,  


even children and saw the temple itself,

its megaliths and the spherical stones obviously used for rolling the huge weights.

We had a delightful lunch (included) with a Belgian couple (he works for Petronas) and we discussed the advantages and problems of a two-nation state, among the rest of the world's problems. We also spoke about the fact that Belgium seems to manage quite well without a government, and they did not seem inclined to take us up on our offer to send them ours. On the other hand they told us Belgian jokes about the Dutch.. He paid for Arkee's coffee and we exchanged e-mails, hoping they would visit us in Israel.
Then we were taken to a handicrafts shop where we were expected to buy – and did. In the delightful surroundings of an old building, once a washhouse, lace and woollen goods of all kinds and for all tastes were displayed, and next door – silver filigree, all of course locally made and sold by people in folklore costume. 

On the other hand in the market we saw later even a straw hat was marked made in China, and when I read out the label, an Asiatic-looking young man standing next to me cracked up.
From there we went back to the capital of Gozo, Victoria (also called Rabat) and mounted the Citadel, mostly for having done it. The building is not very interesting, and in addition is under reconstruction. We could have had our picture taken in the pillory or visited the prison, but chose just to look out at the flat plain and count the churches in view and on the way down, peek into the World War II shelter. But by that time I had had too many steps to brave any more investigation.
We returned to the bus through the market and the crimson-draped church (for the festival), festooned streets and St.George decorated houses. The dragon population of Gozo has been severely decimated.

It seems on Gozo one can leave the key in the door, out of trust, but also in case a son kidnapped by pirates should happen to come back..

Back at the hotel we were very happy to make use of the spa to shower and change before a final quick shop and meal. Then we were on our way home, well-satisfied and ready to recommend a tour to Malta to anyone who asked.