Category: Travel abroad (page 1 of 3)

Malta – Day 7

He must have thought I was a peahen

A lovely day for my final day in Malta. First port of call was costa’s famous basilica,  famous for its survival after a bomb fell through the roof in 1942 but failed to explode. An Italian pilot was lightning his load and accidentally dropped it on the church but, as Maria quipped, since it was Italian in didn’t behave as it should have done, and failed to explode, fortunately since 300 people were attending mass inside the church. A replica of the bomb is on display – rather odd to see in a church.  The Ro

Unexpected sign in a church

man Catholic Church was built in 1833-1860 and is based on the Pantheon in Rome. Leaving the church we only were allowed 25 minutes to climb up to the balcony in the dome, visit the WW ll bunkers and/or get morning coffee.

Cannons and religion

I opted for the bunkers, just outside the basilica and saw reconstructions of the life that the people seeking safety lived. Lace making, hairdressing equipment and sewing machines were all part of life underground. 

Then we were off to visit the San Anton Gardens in Attard. Because the towns in Malta are so densely populated every inch of land in the towns is taken up with building, apart from the few designated gardens which are open to the public. In fact apart from palm trees there are no trees on Malta and so there is no wood at all for building material.

The gardens surround a palace that was originally built in the early 17th century and is now the residence of Malta’s prime minister. As I wandered around there numerous walkways I came to a gate manned by a soldier and at that moment a cavalcade of vehicles drew up and the soldier saluted. I guess the prime minister was in the car! The walled gardens were opened to the public in 1882 and it was lovely to see so much color in the flowers. I hadn’t realized until then how much I’d missed seeing colorful blooms. Of course the Maltese kitties were enjoying sunning themselves in the plant pots too. Several trees with the spiky and bottle-shaped trunks that I’d seen in Sicily were present and peacocks were strutting their stuff beneath them. 

The president arrives – off camera!

Lunch was at the coastal village of Marsaxlokk which is described as a typical fishing village, but the restaurants and street vendors have moved in and nowadays it’s a tourist haven  too. Still, it was very very pretty with the traditional highly colored fishing boats and there were shoals of fish chomping on pieces of bread. Fishermen had their nets strewn along the quayside and on the menu for one outdoor restaurant, alongside the fried rabbit was octopus stew. I’d been holding out for a dish of mussels until I found a good place by the ocean so here was my opportunity since we were all free to find our own lunch. 

We spent the rest of the afternoon on a tour of the three cities of Senglea, Vittoriosa and Cospicua whose fortifications were built by the Knights of St John. Streets almost narrow enough for people on opposite balconies to shake hands were the order of the day with peeling paint and weathered stone – just my sort of place. The week after I’d got back from my trip I saw a quote from L.S. Lowry in the Manchester Art Gallery: “I seem to have a strong feeling towards decayed houses in deteriorated areas ….” Preparations were being made for the Superleague Triathlon event the next day and tents, camera men and portable toilets and barricades were being set up along our route. In the church of St Lawrence in Valletta there were several clothed skeletons reminding me of the catacombs in Palermo. 

Our final dinner with the group was back in Sliema, at Piccolo Padre, a lovely ending to an interesting trip full of surprises. 

Final dinner

The next morning I left Malta, bound for Leeds/Bradford airport along with another member of the group, and had a trouble-free trip back to Hebden Bridge where the all the colours of Autumn had come to the town in the week that I’d been gone.

Malta – Day 6

As I looked out from my window this morning a flock of birds were circling and soaring around the half built tower blocks. Later I showed my video of their antics to our group but no-one could identify what species they were. 

First on the agenda were two temples – Hagar Qim and Mnajdra. First we were treated to a three D movie about the history of the temples. Perched at the edge of the cliff it brought to mind the Temple of Sounion in Greece that I’d visited way back in 1976. The temples here predate Stonehenge by 1000 years, and they were built before Skara Brae in Orkney too, though I could see many similarities. Hagar Qim is the oldest free standing structure on earth and has now been shielded from the devastating effects of weathering by being covered in a giant tent – a protective canopy. It really looks like an alien space station! The lower temple was down a steep track and golf carts were available for anyone who didn’t want to walk. I took the opportunity of this so that I could have a few minutes back up at the top to wander along the cliff top by myself before the others arrives and we continued on our way.

Next was a short minibus ride to  The Blue Grotto for a 20 minute boat ride into the various sea caves, marveling at the turquoise color off the water as we went. I bought a couple of calendars at the wayside gift shop on my way back to the bus.

As we made our way in yet another mini bus and a new driver Maria mentioned that until about 20 years ago women did not work outside the home in Malta. It would have been seen as a failure of the man to provide for his family. Now women work, which means they have less time to shop at local stores. She, herself, stocks up on groceries at the supermarket once a month. So locally soured products are suffering.

Lunch at the farm

We were on our way to Malta Sunripe to meet an entrepreneurial farmer and his wife who are eager to share their love of farming with tourists. Alongside their 4 enormous greenhouses, each contain 9800 tomato plants they run a farm kitchen where they produce jams and wines, and also have a restaurant featuring their home grown produce. Delicious!

In the wine cellar

We were taken to see the wine cellar that the farmer and his family had carved into the bedrock themselves only a few years ago. After lunch we were shown a film about their work and then we got to tour one of the greenhouses.

8 members of the family farm the tomatoes which means they have to take it in turns to go on vacation because the plants need daily work – planting, tying, applying fertilizer, keeping bumble bees that pollinate the plants. In the summer they paint the roof of the glass house with chalk to stop the sun burning the plants. By the time the rain arrives later in the year the sun is not so hot and the chalk dissolves. Very clever!

On the way back to Sliema we saw the huge building project funded by the EU of 6 new flyovers. One had been completed. Work goes on there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Maria mentioned that newly weds tend to purchase  their homes. If they can’t meet the 10% down payment the government steps in and gives them an interest free loan. Wow! People generally live with their parents until they get married, and the average age of marriage is just over 30.

For an interesting take on the problems with the Maltese economy take a look at the first 10 minutes of this: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0bnb6vc/mediterranean-with-simon-reeve-series-1-episode-1

Today’s kitty

We were back at the hotel by 5:30 for a ‘free evening’ but I didn’t want a free evening. This was when I think a WhatsApp idea for those who wanted to partner up with someone else from the group would have been a good idea: get the ferry over to Valletta after dark, relax at an oceanfront bar, go beach combing. I didn’t want to eat in. A restaurant alone and though I thought about taking a nap I was too excited to sleep, so I headed out along the oceanfront to explore the peninsula. A map had promised Victorian Baths, but I didn’t find them. Still, it was nice to potter about on the rocks for a while. I went back to the mini market which had been closed on the first night and was surprised to find how good it was. It was the only food store I’d been into, or even seen on the trip. 

Malta – Day 5

Day 5

I was woken intermittently during the night by rumbles of thunder in the distance and it was rather overcast when I look out of my window, carefully screening myself from the guys already hard at work on the construction site opposite.

Roof-top kitty

I began the day by walking along the seafront for half and hour or so, checking out the kitties in the playground, and noticing that every second business was selling real estate. 

After breakfast we headed out for our 90 minute boat trip in Malta’s Grand Harbour. Maria had told us that the only way to really appreciate the vastness of the harbour was to see it by boat, and though this sounded decidedly like a marketing ploy – Boy! Was that true. There are 5 ‘fingers’ to this natural  harbour and it’s still a hub of activity with its cranes, oil rigs, high end yachts, dry docks for ship building and fishing vessels. I saw a huge crane that was shaped like a head and neck of a giraffe in the distance, and, lo and behold, when our boat drew close, the rigging of the crane had been painted in the brown and yellow spots of the giraffe. Our of our group explained to me that the oil rigs were just there for storage, they weren’t drilling.

She was from Aberdeen and working in that industry. There were lots of small boats adjusting their sails as they travelled. They were practicing for a big yacht race this coming weekend. The five star formation of the fort was easier to see from the ocean and its fortress walls seemed impenetrable. I could also see the hospital and appreciate its long length and how amazing its unsupported ceiling must have been when it was built. 

Lifestyles of the rich and famous

Then onto Mdina where Maria pointed out various places we could have lunch from our central point outside the cathedral. As we approached the central square through the narrow streets I could hear a symphonic band playing songs from Jesus christ Superstar – one of my family’s favourite musicals. I couldn’t wait to see them close up. Four of us headed for a very pleasant lunch in the courtyard of a former palace. We asked our waiters for help with translation of the menu but its was difficult. They were Albanian and Sicilian.

I chose to be adventurous and selected the monkfish carpaccio with the best roast potatoes in the world. Despite the ‘relaxed’ rate of service I still had an hour after lunch to explore the city alone, and found myself taking lots of photos of door knockers. These were a symbol of your social status, and some were very elaborate – daily with a nautical theme.

Like Murano Mdina is noted for its glass and I took a look in a couple of the glass studios. I found some lovely pieces but didn’t fancy my chances about getting them home, or the the U.S in one piece. 

Glass octopus

When we met up again, at the British phone box (they look as though they’ve been planted by mistake – along with the British post boxes) we visited a Roman villa with intact mosaic floors and then on to the catacombs. I must admit I was a little disappointed with these at first. After visiting the amazing catacombs in Palermo last year where the skeletons and both posed and clothed, just seeing holes hacked into the bedrock where the corpses would have lain was not as mind blowing. 

We arrived back at the hotel at 5:30 and met up for dinner an hour later, organized by Maria, at Gululu about 20 minutes walk along the waterfront.

Rabbit is the featured local food but I had clam and aubergine pasta, my first pasta dish of the trip. It was delicious. Our talk at dinner was mainly about places our group had visited –  Cambodia, Egypt, Morocco. I think everyone had been to India at some time in their lives. This is so different from conversation in America where the topic might included visiting a second home at Lake  Tahoe, or a beach holiday in Florida. Malta had 2 1/2 million tourists last year and 30% of the GDP is tourism. Malta can only provide 23% of its own food. The rest has to be imported, much of it from Sicily. Legislation states than new factories must employ native Maltesers and private schools teach English as their first language. Speaking English is a status symbol so the Maltese language is on the decline. All medical treatment is free, though you can take out health insurance to gain faster service. It only costs 20 Euros for a home visit from your family GP.  There is 3% unemployment. The only natural resource on the island is stone, and the original 50 quarries are now down to 3. Most families have a ‘Sunday only’ car in addition to 2 ‘regular’ cars. Sunday cars have a different colored license plate and can only be driven on Sundays so they only pay 1/7 of the road tax and insurance. As you can see – we had a very informative conversation over dinner. I’d not seen any drunken Brits on this trip as I had expected to, or anyone drunk or homeless. The expensive areas are being bought up by Chinese and Russians and there’s a big gaming industry on the island. No property tax either.

 I walked back along the seafront alone and stopped to watch a men’s waterpolo match in a swimming pool at the ocean’s edge.

Dinner with the group
View as I walked back to the hotel

Malta – Day 4

New hat

A 9 a.m. departure to spend the entire day in Valletta. It was to be a hot day, entirely outdoors so I donned my new hat (bought at a street vendor’s yesterday) and my new pink dress that I’d purchased on my trip to Whitby with Anna. It was only a half hour drive to Valletta. The entire town is a UNESCO site and is laid out on a grid system with very narrow streets to provide shade. 

Even though it was not yet 10 o’clock we had to queue to enter the city through the grand gate and the gardens with the wonderful look out were teaming with tourists.

Three cats were sitting contentedly on the counter of the cafe1 I soldier in uniform was preparing the cannons for their twice daily firing  – for the tourists’ benefit, I hasten to add. and on our left is the new building known as the ‘cheese grater’ but which is, in fact, the new parliament building. The prime minister’s house/office s an old building with two historical cannons outside. There was no police presence and kids were climbing on the cannons to have their photos taken. A sand coloured statue of a man sitting cold by caught my attention and I asked on of our group to the my photo as I headed to sit down on his lap – just as I had with the statue of Oscar Wilde in Dublin. I got the fright of my life when the statue moved and I realized it was a real man! 

And then he moved!

St John’s Cathedral was our goal. It’s amazingly ornate inside with its 8 chapels, one for each nationality of the knights of St John. Each chapel is highly decorated with mausoleums and elaborate walls of carved limestone topped with gold leaf. Each chapel tried to outdo the others in the wealth of artwork. The marble tombstones on the floor were wonderful, and they looked as if they were specially designed for Hallowe’en with their grinning portrayal of Death. We were told that’s because the knights looked forward to death, such was their religious belief. There were loads of tour groups vying for space especially in front of the two famous paintings by Carravaggio. Each person was issued  a headset so that we could listen to our own our guide.

In our free time I chose to go to a concert in a less elaborate church on the square that I’d seen was to hold a flute duet recital. This meant that I had to skip lunch, but it was a lovely opportunity to get away from the hustle and bustle of the town, and listen to music that was composed around the time the church was built. It was a husband and wife duo and they’d both studied at the Royal college of music in London.

The reverb was magical. Above the altar was a dome, unusual in the fact that the paintings were in shades of grey only, but it definitely had a three dimensional look.  We were free for the rest of the day and while Maria headed back home the rest of us headed towards the fortress at the end of the peninsula. ‘The Malta experience’ was showing a movie about Malta’s history and most of the group headed in that direction – to get away from the ‘stand and shuffle’ routine we’d had for the rest of the day. It was excellent and afterwards we were given a tour of  the hospital of the Knights. I’d never connected the St John’s Ambulance service in England with the Maltese Knights of St John, who were originally a medical service provided for all the pilgrims who went to Jerusalem, but they eventually became a military unit of some severity. It was a long, two story building and features the longest unsupported ceiling in Europe(?).

Each bed had its own toilet built into the wall and  air vents in the walls  led directly to the garden so that the perfume from the citrus plants would scent the ward. Amazing. Presidents bush and Gorbachev met in this very room in 1989 for a press conference at the end of the cold war. Downstairs was the ward for the poor, with 4 people to each bed and toilet. The remains of frescoes can still be made out on the walls above the beds. What was once the garden is now a 1500 seat theatre.

I happened to come out of the building with Marion and we spent the rest of the day together while others from our group heads for the extensive War Museum in the fort. We wandered around the back streets where the wonderful balconies were strewn with washing, and even those apartments without balconies had some sort of contraption whereby they could hang washing outside their window. The balconies originated in the Moslem East when women were not able to leave the house alone, but the protruding balcony gave them access to whatever was going on in the street. We opted for Soul Food for an al fresco early dinner. My salmon salad was delicious but there’s no way I would have guessed that that was what it was from its appearance.

As we headed back to find the bus station I was apprehensive that we wouldn’t recognize our stop, but fortunately we bumped into two more people from our group and we arrived back at the Plaza Regency safely. The buses on the island are well utilized and ours  was packed with people. Back at the hotel I went up to the rooftop bar to have a shufti at the ‘entertainment.’ It turned out to be a good singer, but her ‘stage’ was inadequate and not even lit. 

Day 3 Malta

The day began with a 15 minute boat ride – optional – in Dwejra Bay – where the water was so clear I could easily pick out the bright orange coral. Our trip took us into sea caves clouded with bright purple seaweed. The main attraction was, until 2017 the Azure Window, a sea arch. Well, we had Natural Bridge in Santa Cruz! The location was used for the filming of Game of Thrones – which I’ve never seen.

Then it was a short drive to the Ta Pinu Sanctuary noted for its mosaics both inside and outside the church. Situatd in open countryside near the village of Gharb there are some wonderful views from the plaza which has modern mosaics surrounding it. Though the date of the original church on the site is lost in history this new church was built 1922-1932 in the Neo-Romantic style, and it’s a much visited site since pope John Paul ll celebrated mass here. 

We walked down a steep hill from Zebbug and its tower built by the Knight of Malta to the Salt Pans of Xwejni Bay. This was my favorite sight seeing stop of the day. The limestone rocks here look like frozen waves, made from golden sandstone.

Occasional sections of blood red stone is apparently caused by the oxidation of the limestone. Salt was a very important commodity. Roman soldiers were paid in salt and the crafty officers made sure they paid out on a humid day when the salt would be heavier. From the word saline comes the word salary. I never knew that! I sat down on a ‘frozen wave’ and all around me were fossilized sand dollars. My sitting spot felt a bit lumpy and I found that I’d been sitting on a fossilized sea urchin.

Fossilised sea urchin

Wonderful!  

As our group chatted over lunch in Marlsfornabout the scarcity of good salads in England, and good greens in particular, I made the crazy comment that in the U.S rocket just never took off! We visited a man who has worked in the salt pans all his life and he has a little dug out where he takes his siestas every day.

In fact, there were several doorways into the chambers that have been carved into the solid rock. Pretty neat. 

Today we moved from Gozo to Malta, to the Plaza Regency hotel, right on the waterfront in Sliema. Maria had keeping reiterating g that we would find Sliema very different from Victoria and indeed it was. The waterfront was a mass of real estate shops, clubs, bars and restaurants. The harbor was the home of hundred and top range yachts.

This is how I had pictured Malta – as a destination for Brits in package holidays supping up Watney’s red barrel and turning in to lobsters as they sunbathed on the beaches. As I opened the door into my room on the 7th floor I could see three men pouring concrete almost within arm’s length of my balcony.

View from my window for the next 5 nights

I had a room at the back, facing the building works. No sea view for me. Although there was full kitchen with stove top, microwave and  fridge they were of little use. No mini bar, and what’s more important to me – no milk for my tea! The Wifi was somewhat intermittent and the choice of TV stations was far m ore limited than in Gozo. The only channel I could find in English was a French 24 hour news channel. 

Lookout tower built by the Knights of St John

The group had dinner together in the Neapolitan bar adjacent to the hotel. I was sorry not to be able to watch the England v Bulgaria soccer at the bar across the street but later on the news on the radio I heard about the game being held up twice because of racial slurs directed at some of the English players. At dinner I sat next to Maria and asked her about her interest in tourism and her particular interest in history and archaeology. Apparently she’d wanted to be a tour guide since being very young and had thus specialized in languages and history before going to college to study tourism.  All education, including university is free here, as is all health care. Maira directed me to a minimarket up a dark street, deserted street, ignorer to procure some milk, but it had closed early. So she managed to get the hotel kitchen to sell me a carton. Brilliant. 

View from the roof top bar and pool

Gozo Day 2

Feeling at home! One of our group was wearing a Santa Cruz T shirt today!!! (And the next day he was wearing a Cape Cod shirt)

Love the backdrop to the flea market

After breakfast at 8 I wandered across the street to the Sunday flea market on the sports complex’s car park. I was surprised how inexpensive things were. I’d have thought that the locals would have cashed in on the tourists’ need for something Maltese. There was a nice selection of bric-a-brac – even some old opera programs with the full libretto.

Opera programme on sale at the flea market

At 9 our group met up for a tour of the citadel built high on the limestone protrusion, giving the occupants a 360 degree view of Gozo. The stone fortifications were covered in fossils. I don’t think I’ve every seen so many.

Fossils in the citadel wall

Maria gave us an explanation of the history but it was far too much to take in.  Because of its strategic position in the Mediterranean, controlling maritime traffic from Europe to the Middle East and Africa Malta has been fought over and occupied by many cultures and races throughout its 7000 year history. There is evidence of Bronze Age settlements here, but the acropolis was probably Roman in origin. The whole citadel is a mass of museums and Maria had selected the prison museum. One of the jobs of the prisoners was to remove the soil that was covering the Megalithic tombs that we were to visit in the afternoon. I also had a quick mooch around a typical 4 storey house close by.

Then it was on to the bay for lunch. For transport during the entire tour we had a variety of minibuses. In some the AC worked. In others it didn’t. Often we had several different drivers each day, several different buses so you weren’t able to leave stuff on the bus. On my tour of Ireland we had one tour guide who was also the driver, and our bus had tables, power points and we were able to drink and eat on the bus. Free water was also provided. Here there was no water, and eating and drinking were no allowed. Neither was there any power points. Maria pointed out various places to eat and Sue and I chose an outdoor cafe on the waterside where I had a relatively inexpensive sea risotto. Like everyone else on the tour Sue had taken many Explore vacations.

Lunch in Munxar with Sue from . New Zealand
Anyone for fish?

After lunch we drove to the Megalithic tombs, which, it was once believed, were built and lived in  by giants. These predate Stonehenge and are constructed from huge blocks of limestone. There are many types of limestone on Malta all of which weather differently, producing amazing textures. The site was damaged by the 1693 Sicilian earthquake. Some of the standing stones have been recovered to preserve them because of the problems with weathering.

The museum had the ‘fat lady’ figures which had been discovered here, and the tourist shops did a grand trade in replicas. 

The fat lady sings – Megalithic art

The vegetation here made me quite homesick – for California! Oleanders, pomegranate trees, date palm, figs, olives. We walked down to the beach and while  I paddled  a few people from our group swam for half an hour. 

Paddling in the Med

Back at the hotel we had an hour before we met again to go to see an event in Santa Lucia, the Symphony of Lights. This was not on our tour schedule so most of us took a taxi to see this festival of lights. Thousands of lights were lighting up a hillside above the small village and back on the village square music was being supplied by the man singing to his keyboard while a crowd gathered to watch the procession, taking the Madonna statue back to its niche in the church. As I write this up I’ve just found out what I missed! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SSOOGLKPCxg The band must have started just as we left.

Catholicism is alive and well on the island. I had  dinner with the two couples on the main square in Victoria and walked back through the empty streets with them around 10 p.m. Again, so different from the night-life in Sicily. 

Gozo Day 1

Malta

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:  https://www.ottsworld.com/blogs/walls-made-of-rubble-in-malta/

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

A week without WiFi – or a cup of tea!

or – a lovely 5 days in the Franconia region of Germany

City break to Holland

The idea of this trip came from a few ladies in a Meetup group that I’d joined last year. We decided we’d like to travel together for a few days, somewhere within easy reach. We all put forward a list of choices and we decided upon Amsterdam. Unlike the others I’d never been to Holland. When I’d lived in England before moving to the U.S we’d always spent vacations in far away, exotic places, knowing that we’d be more comfortable travelling to places closer to England when we were older . . . little did we know that I’d end up living in the U.S for 32 years . . . but now that I’ve moved back to England here’s a wonderful opportunity to visit those places closer to home.


DAY 1

And just how close is Amsterdam from where I live now? Well, I had breakfast at home in Hebden Bridge, and elevenses in Holland! We flew together from Leeds/Bradford airport, a 45 minute drive from home, and the flight was 50 minutes. It was a lovely sunny day as we left but I didn’t get much of a view from my aisle seat on the plane either going or coming back home.

Our hotel was in Zaandam, a 20 minute train journey from the airport and only 12 minutes by train from the centre of Amsterdam. I knew that Zaandam was famous for some crazy architecture but that was about the extent of my knowledge. My trip to the U.S and moving apartments a few days after I’d returned had taken up my time and I’d done zero preparation for the Holland adventure.

The amazing hotel opposite mine!

We checked into Easy hotel which is on the floors above Primark! My room was on the 10th floor and I could see a large portion of Zaandam below me. It’s population is around 76,000 and the amazing thing is that apart from one elevated road in the distance I couldn’t see a single car! But almost every street had its own canal. We went to explore the city with its narrow buildings, all different and brightly colored, though I was surprised by the lack of blooming flowers in the city. I’d seen far more daffodils driving from Hebden Bridge to the airport than I could see in Zaandam. The same comment was to be made in Amsterdam too. We found the town square and parked ourselves in a bar there to people watch but it was rather chilly to sit outside. A large statue of a ship builder dominated the square and I was surprised to see that the name below was written in Russian. I needed to find out why – and who this person was. We found the main sluice gate to the main canal with its ornate stone columns and date stones and a new rusty iron sculpture of a sinking bridge has been added. I even found a Mozartstrasse. What’s Mozart got to do with Zaandam? We had dinner in an Italian restaurant where large black and white portraits of old Italian movie stars decorated the walls. By 9 o’clock we were ready to turn in for the night.

DAY 2

A day in Amsterdam.

We found a little coffee/pancake shop opposite the hotel to have breakfast it it became ‘our’ breakfast place each morning of the trip. It had rained during the night but there was lots of blue sky as we crossed the canal to get our morning tea – but it was decidedly chilly. Nowhere in Holland did we find pots of tea, and since our hotel, though excellent in many other ways, didn’t have a kettle in the room, we were constantly on the look-out for tea as we wandered around all day.

Pancakes for breakfast

We spent the day in Amsterdam, traveling there by train in 12 minutes from Zaandam. I was excited to step foot in the city but I soon realized that my idea of Amsterdam in my imagination was nothing like the vibrant modern city that I was seeing. It seems primarily a city made up of people in their 20’s but perhaps that can be said of most capital cities, and probably reflects more my age than anything else. Fast moving bicycles were a devil to negotiate, making me realize just how much I rely on my hearing to cross roads normally. Here silent bikes charge towards you, suddenly appearing from around corners at crazy speeds. Dodging between the trams outside the train station also took some skill. Canals were everywhere, not just the four main canals but a veritable fabric of interwoven watery threads bordered by immaculate four story houses painted in beautiful colors but often perched at crazy angles as though they are falling over – and that comment was made before I’d had my first beer at lunch time! Who built them? When? Why? My head was filled with questions. But then, that’s one of the reasons I enjoy traveling to new places.

Bikes on the ferry

Leaving the station, where the mirrors on the ceiling had the interesting effect of portraying everyone upside down, taking our life in our hands we crossed the tram tracks, moved swiftly to avoid bicycles and jumped on the free ferry across to the A’Dam centre. It was very, very windy and the water was choppy on the ferry. There seemed to be just as many bicycles as people! The A’Dam tower is a high rise building housing clubs, restaurants, a music school, a lookout tower and a crazy swing that swings you over the edge of the top of the building. Rising 100 meters in 22 seconds, complete with light show, we found ourselves in a bar with spectacular views, but even better was the outdoor platform where the booming sound of the wind was amazing. Several times we were almost blown over, and I couldn’t imagine how the swing was still allowed to operate in such windy conditions.

Atop the A’Dam tower

Heading past 100s, probably 1000s of bikes on racks at the station I found myself wondering how people remember where they’ve parked their bikes. I mean, who hasn’t forgotten which floor they parked their car on in a multi story car park? There are around 880,000 bikes in Amsterdam and on average between 12,000 and 15,000 are pulled out of the canals each year. Amsterdam also has 4 full time divers who are on 24 hour standby to pull out occupants of the cars which fall into the canals – about one per week! The three main canals were built in the 17th century during the Dutch Golden Age when the Dutch were exploring and colonizing many places around the world and were becoming one of the most important trading nations. Even the Tzar of Russia came to learn the tricks of the trade from the Dutch . . . no, not from the famous Red Light district but from their ship building experts. But more of that later.

Even Primark had gotten into the spirit of the scenery!

Nice one!

We had lunch in a loverly little cafe bar and continued exploring the large square with their imposing buildings. Most of the paths and squares are surfaced in brick tiles, sometimes in intricate patterns. Apparently because the ground surface is so marshy macadam roads would disintegrate but the brick absorbs the water and makes the paths quiet stable. The same can’t really be said of the oldest houses in the cities. The oldest I saw dated from 1590 but many proudly sported date stones in the 1600’s. To find stable ground to form the foundation of a building wooden poles had to be sunk to find the stable sand and these formed the footings of the buildings. Because stable, dry land was at such a premium buildings tended to haver a space footprint and so extended upwards rather than outwards. Merchants built their warehouse adjacent to their home. Overhanging winches were used to get the wares into the warehouses and apparently these winches are often updated and still used to enable large piece of furniture to be taken up onto the 3rd and 4th floor apartments.

Black clouds promised rain but there was only a sprinkle

Westerkerk spire

The Prince’s canal was began in 1612 and during the 50 years it took to complete the population of Amsterdam had grown from 50,000 to 200,000 making it the 3rd biggest city in the world after London and Paris. Built in 1630 the Westerkerk has the highest spire in Amsterdam and Rembrandt is buried somewhere in the church although the exact location has been lost.Very close to the church is the Anne Frank house and the spire with its clock face was visible from the attic and Anne described in her diary the chiming of its carillon as a source of comfort. There is a photo in Anne’s house of the Nazi troupes driving right past the church.

Anne Frank’s House

We’d booked our tickets to Anne Frank’s house before we left England and we had been lucky to get tickets at such short notice. We’d got the final time slot of the day, yet even so it was packed. I’ve never read her diary, but Anna had visited the house a few years ago so I knew it was worth going to. I think the thing that made the biggest impression on me was the silence. Yes, everyone was given a listening commentary and so everyone was intent on listening to the commentary so no-one was chattering to their friends and family. The journals Anne kept reminded me so much of my journals which I wrote at around the same age – and still have – filled with little sketches. The posters that her father had put on her wall I found very poignant. Only Anne’s father Otto, survived out of the 8 people who were in the house, and I found his interview much later in his life very hard to watch.

We’d planned on having dinner in the Grand cafe at Amsterdam’s grand central station situated in the former 1881 waiting room with impressive Art Nouveau decor. We hadn’t made reservations and we were fortunate to get a table, but it was very busy and when I asked our waiter to take a photo of us enjoying our meal he told is flatly that no, he was too busy. We had already noted and commented on the rather brusque service we’d had in several cafes and bars and I read an interesting interpretation of this characteristic. Holland is flat. The landscape is bare, open. There’s nowhere to hide. Perhaps this accounts for the forthright demeanor of the Dutch: they say it like it is. No gratuitous smile masking the real feeling that is so often the order of the day in other countries. Maybe there’s something in that. One of the more bizarre residents of this restaurant is a white cockatoo by the name of Elvis!

We’d planned on having dinner in the Grand cafe at Amsterdam’s grand central station situated in the former 1881 waiting room with impressive Art Nouveau decor. We hadn’t made reservations and we were fortunate to get a table, but it was very busy and when I asked our waiter to take a photo of us enjoying our meal he told is flatly that no, he was too busy. We had already noted and commented on the rather brusque service we’d had in several cafes and bars and I read an interesting interpretation of this characteristic. Holland is flat. The landscape is bare, open. There’s nowhere to hide. Perhaps this accounts for the forthright demeanor of the Dutch: they say it like it is. No gratuitous smile masking the real feeling that is so often the order of the day in other countries. Maybe there’s something in that. One of the more bizarre residents of this restaurant is a white cockatoo by the name of Elvis!

Elvis looking very grand in the Grand Cafe

DAY 3

The next morning we were to go exploring rural Holland and we began our day by going to Zaanse Schans where restored and reconstructed windmills still operate, but now primarily for tourists. Our journey didn’t quite work out as we expected since we got off at the wrong station but not to worry. We figured it out. There’s a comfort in being with a group, even when we all get it wrong! Eventually we back tracked on a bus and found a student who was going our way and was happy to walk with us to the village. We had to wait to cross a draw bridge which was just being raised to let a couple of boats through, and then it got stuck going down, but eventually we were able to cross and soon found ourselves confronted by several picturesque windmills. It dawned on me that this is what I’d been expecting in Amsterdam! Yes, crazy, I know, but in my imagination Holland is Monet and Van Gogh’s paintings of the country – pre-industrial revolution. It’s this ubiquitous tulip strewn landscape, dotted with windmills and clog wearing millers that Holland promotes to tourists, and I had fallen for it hook, line and sinker – ha! But now we were firmly in tourist land and I set off to explore by myself arranging to meet the others for lunch later.

I set off along the canal bank to the farthest windmill, stopping to take lots of photos, and ultimately decided on visiting the saw mill that was hard at work. An interesting movie showed the rebuilding of this windmill. So many moving parts – amazingly intricate. The sound of the sawing was interesting too and I stopped to watch the sawdust piling into clear bags in layers. Another of the mills grinds spices and another grinds pigments for paint. One had a date stone of 1667. I was surprised to see that the body of some of the mills were thatched. At the height of its power around 1720 there were 600 mills in this area. Traditionally, the wood processing and food industries have been the most important industries in the Zaan region. In the 17th and 18th centuries, along the banks of the Zaan there were weaving mills, forges and various other processing industries (tobacco, cocoa, paper, paint, candles), but also shipbuilding and maritime shipping were well represented. Almost every village in the Zaan region participated in whaling. In 1697 almost 80 Greenland sailors sailed on the Zaan at the same time, with no fewer than 40,000 barrels of whale bacon!

A cheese shop showed the cheese making process (something that I’d seen for the first time in Sicily last year) and the servers were dressed in traditional costume. We explored some of the local merchants’ houses, very pretty 17th to 19th century, with swans gliding along the small canals and then we had lunch in D’Swarte Walvis. 20 years ago it lost its Michelin star but at least that means it’s now within my price range. we had a lovely window seat and were occupied by watching workers preparing the gardens and courtyard for the upcoming summer season – power washing everything.

As we returned to the station we could smell chocolate coming from a large cocoa factory, another tradition of this region.

The gardens of Keukenhof were next on our itinerary. It had been overcast in Zaanse Schans but here at Keukenhof it was decidedly chilly too, and it felt a little weird to be wandering around these lovely gardens in such weather. In fact the gardens only opened a couple of days ago for the season so they probably weren’t looking quite their best. What I found quite lovely however, were the 6 or so buildings featuring amazing floral displays. Around 7 million bulbs are planted annually. It opened in 1950 in the grounds of a former castle dating back to the 15th century. The theme of this year’s displays is Flower Power and the displays were inventive, colorful and amusing at times. I particularly enjoyed the orchid building, and reading the names of the tulips. I tried to find names of people I know: I found a Marie Jo and a Danny – and Oracle! There was even a Pleyel piano bedecked with flower pots.

We headed back to Zaandam after a full day of beautiful colors and experiences, not to mention 8 miles of walking! We had dinner in a bar in Zaandam and were alarmed to find shards of glass on the table. We moved tables and were even more alarmed to find shards of glass on that table too! Walking back I noticed Tulip Vodka for sale – hmmm.

DAY 4

Haarlem was our destination this morning. The railway station had the most beautiful gift shop which, if my understanding of the Dutch sign above the entrance served me correctly, used to be the first class waiting room. But I was anxious to get my first glimpse of the city and we spent a lovely three and a half hours wandering the streets and taking in the sights. It seemed a more more approachable place than Amsterdam. Most of the bikes here were more like people carriers with carriages for children attached at the front. The window displays in the shops were incredible, and I thought of Paul McCartney whose goal in life was to be a window dresser! A bakery caught my eye, where the window was filled with suspended bread rolls. The entrance to a cannabis shop was guarded by a fierce, good looking policeman who posed with me for a photo! A boutique with brightly colored dresses invited more exploration and I found a dress that Sarah would have loved – every color! For myself I couldn’t resist buying a lacey pale blue shirt. it will look good with my newly purchased tulip socks and windmill earrings!!! The coffee shop that George Clooney advertises looked like no coffee shop I’ve ever seen before. I even found a variety called Arpeggio. Street art graffiti was tasteful, and reminded me of the colorful walls in Reykjavik. The town square is dominated by the Grote Kerk. The church is dedicated to St Bavo who died in 653AD. After fires damaged the original church the current church was built between 1370 and 1538. The organ was built by Christian Muller between 1735 and 1738 and underwent extensive renovation in the early 1960’s. It is a stunning piece of craftsmanship consisting of over 5000 pipes, 68 registers and is almost 30 meters high, but I wasn’t able to see the three manual organ console. Mozart played this organ when he was 10 years old and Handel played it too. There was quite a lot of modern art too, stained glass, sculpture, painting, reminding me of Blackburn cathedral, but here it complements the ancient artwork too.

For once it was warm enough to have lunch at cafe overlooking the square. I had a lovely Thai chicken skewer and a Belgian beer – delightful. Town squares and streets in general are set with bricks rather than macadam so that they don’t buckle with the dampness of the underlying soil. A line of espalier trees provided resting places for birds but I’m glad our table wasn’t directly beneath!

Next we were off to the seaside – or Overveen – Amsterdam’s beach. It didn’t take long to get there by bus and we were lucky that the weather was so good. Beautiful blue sky and a long almost deserted beach to explore. Thousands of razor shells were washed up and walking on them made a wonderful scrunchy sound. We could see high rise buildings of Zandvoort in the distance through the sea mist.





Back in Amsterdam we were bound for an hour and a half’s cruise on the canal. I was anxious that we too late in the day for good light for taking photographs but it was fine. Occasionally we passed by a gap in the rows of merchants’ houses and the low sunlight was able to skim the canal surface – very pretty. I elected not to listen to the running commentary on the headset and just soak in the picture in front of me – beautiful. We passed the dock where the Viking river boat cruise liners dock. They are huge! In the Amstel district we saw the row of houses called the Dancing Ladies because they are now situated at rather weird angles as they sink into the wet soil. Yet all these picturesque houses are immaculately maintained. Apparently there’s a city ordinance requiring this.Also in the Amstel district is the modern opera and ballet hall, built onto the canal, its location and architecture again reminding me of Reykjavik.



It was getting dark by the time our cruise was complete and we headed to the Red Light district which was busy with people my age eager to see what the fuss is all about. The sex toy shops were doing a roaring business. I expected seeing scantily clad girls beckoning guys into the blue movie houses or girls posing seductively in red lighted windows as was the case in Brussels. Perhaps it was just too early in the evening.

Back in Zaandam we tried to ‘go Thai’ but the restaurant didn’t look particularly inviting (lighting makes such a big difference to the ambiance of a place) so we ended up at the nice Italian place for a second night, hungry after another full day of sight seeing and walking 8 miles.

DAY 5

We had planned to spend the morning exploring more of Zaandam before our mid afternoon flight home. I began the day by trying to find postage stamps for the postcards I’d written. This was easier said than done. The first concierge I spoke to didn’t know where I could buy stamps. The second suggested I try the supermarket. No luck there, but a helpful assistant suggested I should try the bookstore. Hmmm. So I set off in search of the book store. Success. Then I asked where I could post my postcards sporting their new stamps. “Ah,” she said, “You need to go to another book store.” This time her instructions of how to locate the bookstore with the mail box was less than accurate, but at least I was having a good time exploring the streets of Zaandam. Having given up and retraced my steps I found the bookstore and, hey presto, there was even a mail box for my postcards!

Crazy angle in Tzar Peter’s house

Next was a visit to Tzar Peter’s house, one of the oldest buildings in Holland. This is the building in which Tzar peter de Grote stayed in 1697. he came to Zaandam in order to learn the trade of ship building. At the time Russia was a country that was way behind the Netherlands in its industry, exploration of the world, and transportation and so Tzar Peter came, incognito, to learn the shipwright’s trade. Incognito was difficult for him because he was 6’8″. The Russian tzars and Dutch monarchs realised that the house needed protection from the elements and in the 19th century a building was built around the wooden house to protect it.

A death mask of Tzar Peter is on display. The windows are completely covered in scratched signature spanning several centuries, and the subsidence causes everything to learn at a precarious angle. it was a great place to take photos and since there were only another couple of people touring the site I was able to take lots of pictures. The were even bottles of Russian Imperial stout for sale, named, of course, Czar Peter.

Back in the town centre I had half an hour to wait for the rest of the group so I indulged myself at a lovely cafe, which was named an ‘American’ cafe. the deserts looked amazing , and I was disappointed that this was the wrong time of day for such extravagance! Still, the place provided me with the best cup of tea on the trip.

Our next port of call was the Monet Atelier located in a house right above the canal. Monet lived for 4 months in Zaandam in 1871 and painted 25 works. He was just in time to capture the old Zaandam, the one that I’d pictured in my mind. The Industrial Revolution, which had taken hold throughout most of Europe, and the advent of the steam engine, would within a few years irrevocably change the characteristic landscape of the Zaandam area, dotted with windmills, as Monet saw it. The small building contains replicas of all 25 paintings and its wonderful to see these all gathered in one small room, when, in actual fact, they are scattered around the world in museums and private collections.

It was time to set off on our journey home and our flight was delayed an hour but Schiphol airport is not a bad place to spend a little extra time. The flight was only 45 minutes and we landed in a lovely sunlit Yorkshire. I took the bus to the centre of Leeds passing Kirkstall Abbey. Perhaps it warrants a day out now that I know it’s quite reachable by public transport. From Leeds a train took me back to Hebden Bridge where I called in at the Chinese to take home some dinner.

3 weeks back in the U S of A

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