St Paul’s Bay, Malta

Why Malta? Well, I’ve been going to islands and Malta is an island! Why islands, then? I think in a funny sort of way they are the closest I can get to the deserts of the South West USA. It was Keith who actually verbalized that when we were in Mull last year. He said the landscape there reminded him of Santa Fe, New Mexico, perhaps not so much in its actual features and flora but in its wilderness and sense of space. For years people have been asking me why I spend so much time in the deserts, mainly in ghost towns, and it’s this feeling of someone having lived there in comparative isolation. So why Malta in particular? Pauline  and I had been talking about our visits to  Sicily and she said that if I had enjoyed Sicily I’d be sure to like a trip to Malta. And Malta popped up as I searched for an island to visit in October which I find quite daunting, knowing that with the change of the clocks the dark will set in so early during the day. So, Malta it was. I hadn’t done any planning. I’d barely read the description other than that the focus of the tour was on the history and archaeology of the place, and so I was expecting a replica of Sicily though on a smaller scale.

St Paul’s Bay, Malta

So you can imagine my reaction when I arrived at Malta airport and found all the signs in English. I looked out of the window whilst I snacked on items from an English menu and saw the cars driving on the left. For a moment I thought I’d been on the wrong flight! 

My taxi to Leeds Bradford had been at 3 a.m., a time I’m not particularly familiar with, but, I reasoned, the airport will be quiet. As we drove through the silent streets, illuminated by an almost full moon, chatting about the political situation in Kashmir, I wondered if the cafe at the airport would even be open. The only there time I can remember being at an airport at such an ungodly hour was at Reykjavik, where people were tucking into their Icelandic beers at 4 a.m. My only previous flight from Leeds had been to Amsterdam and that was midmorning and there was virtually no-one around – just two conveyor belts at security. This time, however, the place was packed, though, unlike my visit to Manchester airport, everything was moving along quickly and I got through checkin and security in 40 minutes.  I even had a moment to chat with the nice guy at Jet 2 checkin desk who said, ’Boarding for rows A to J will begin boarding at 5:20.’ I asked him if he knew the Simon Armitage poem, ‘Thank you for Waiting.’  He didn’t but he made a note to look it up:

As I drank my flat white and ate a yoghurt I watched the news about the conflict between  Syria and Turkey, learned that tens of thousands of people were without power in Tokyo following the cyclone and that Southern California was being consumed by wildfires. 

I had a window seat and got a good view of the Italian coast, could see smoke pouring from Mt Etna on Sicily, and then, as we started our descent onto Malta a patchwork of small fields divided by stone walls came into view. In fact there seemed to be so many stone walls that I thought at first I was seeing ruins of an ancient city. But more of that later. 

A lady was holding an ‘Explore’ sign as I emerged from the baggage area and told me that after some other people arrived we would be taken to Gozo, a small island off the mainland, so I settled down in the cafe for an hour. I was surrounded by Brits.

6 people eventually arrived for the transfer and we were shepherded into a minivan, for an hour’s drive to the port, then across the 20 mine ferry ride to Gozo. We could see lots of jellyfish in the clear water and some passengers were dropping bread into the water to attract hungry fish.

Aerial jellyfish over Gozo

Someone was parasailing overhead and he looked just like an airborne jellyfish.  The first thing I noticed on the short drive to our hotel were the walls. Some were in immaculate condition while others were ruins of terraces. The fields these walls were enclosing were tiny. Sometimes rows of prickly pear cactus plants acted as walls.  Over the week I learned a lots about walls: there are courses for dry stone wallers to learn their crafts. Walls are under a preservation order. By creating terraces they provide flat land for crops. They help to stop wind erosion. They provide somewhere for stones picked out of the ground to clear the land to grow crops to rest. A family’s land would be divided amongst the sons who in turn would divide the plots for their sons and so the fields have got smaller and smaller. Some were made from rubble, others cut to perfection.  Apparently I’m not the only one fascinated by Maltese walls:

We checked in to the Downtown Hotel, Vittorija. From my room I could just see the sea around the corner of a building. First I took a bath, and found that the bath was so tiny I had a really hard job extracting myself from it! Then I set out to explore the vicinity for an hour. Close by was a park and as I wandered I came across many kitties. Since Anna and Lee  have recently got a little kitty, Twiglet, I was drawn to the kitties and ended up sending her photos of the kitties I saw on my travels each day of my adventure. I wandered along the main street where all the major British stores can be found such  Marks and Spencers and New Look. The opera house was advertising Othello and Aida. I suppose that people who live in Malta are called Maltesers. I made up my mind to buy a packet, but it wasn’t until I was at the airport on my way home that I found a packet to buy. I walked up to the citadel whose origins are 2500 years old. The bedrock had been hollowed out into storage bins for the grain. I didn’t spend too long up there because we have a guided tour of the place tomorrow morning. In the square a screeching noise, which I thought was machinery, turned out to be thousands of birds coming in to roost for the night.

By 6:45 I was sitting on the front deck of the hotel waiting for the group to gather and go out for a meal. My suggestion of creating a WhatsApp group as the group did in Ireland and Sicily didn’t come to anything. I thought it was very useful for meeting up with people in our free time who were interested in doing some sight seeing together. The moon was high in the night sky and almost full and it reminded me of the night in El Curtola when Rachel was convinced the moon was about to bump into the earth! In Gozo Rachel texted me to say that now an earthquake had hit Tokyo on top of the devastation from the typhoon. She has a tour group there at the moment so she’s very busy with work.

Hmmm – I wonder what that means . . . .

Opposite Downtown Hotel is a large sports complex. So far this country doesn’t have the same feel as Sicily. It doesn’t feel Southern European. Where is everyone? In Sicily the streets were filled with people in the evenings on their nightly Passaggiata – until 3 a.m and in the daytime elderly people would sit on chairs outside their houses, directly on the streets. Where were the crazy Vespas? I wasn’t to see a single one in Malta.

At dinner I met the other 12 people in our group: 2 couples, 2 sisters, 2  men and 5 women traveling alone. Our tour guide is Maria who has a wealth of general knowledge about her country, and a wonderfully contagious interest in archaeology. Dinner was at Il Totto, on the main Square. The local speciality is rabbit, though we didn’t see a single wild one. On the menu there was grilled rabbit, rabbit bolognese, and spaghetti rabbit! I went for the chicken salad. Dinner took two and a half hours! That felt Southern European!

First dinner with our group

I was back in my room by 10 and went straight to bed – after catching the cockroach who had taken up residence in my bathroom and dumping him unceremoniously down the loo. 

View from the Capitol