Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Out to Play

We are members of the University of the Third Age (U3A) and both go to the Medieval Church group.  It is led by another member who is a great expert on medieval churches, he was a headmaster before retirement, and very good at sharing his knowledge.  We meet once a month and David sets out to take us round three different churches in fairly close proximity and then we go off for a pub lunch.

Today we went into a part of the Cotswolds I did not even know existed.  We started at Winstone and the church there is effectively in the middle of a farm with a no through road leading to it.  We all go in our own cars and meet up for coffee or hot chocolate.  David's wife, Judy, brings vacuum flasks of hot water and milk, jars of coffee and drinking chocolate, a crate of mugs and a big Tupperware box of chocolate hob nobs.    As everyone arrives in dribs and drabs (there were seventeen of us today) Judy makes the drinks and passes round the menu for the chosen pub so that everyone has time to think about what they would like to eat.

David then led us around the outside of the church pounting out things of architectural interest, showing why certain bits could be classed as Saxon and others Norman and generally being very informative about the architecture.  We then went inside and had a lot of the imagery explained to us.  We then drove off to Edgeworth in convoy, frightening the life out of a postman who normally sees three cars a day instead of eight all together.  Edgeworth was really interesting, there was a wonderful medieval stained glass window in which the colours had faded to leave a silvery sheen over everything.  Our final church was at Miserden which was full of riches - the most amazing altar, some fabulous memorials carved from Derbyshire alabaster and a splendid rood screen.  I would never have gone off to these places on my own initiative and am really grateful to the U3A for giving me the opportunity to learn so much about the things which interest me.

We then trooped off to The Carpenters' Arms at Miserden for lunch which was excellent.  The people we shared a table with all had different things, no-one was disappointed.  Onslow had liver and bacon with chips, I had faggots with mustard mash and onion gravy and the chap who had a ham baguette with chips declared it to be the best ham he had eaten for ages.  I had a half of a Westons cloudy cider on draught and it was fantastic and worked really well with the faggots.  An excellent accompaniment.

We have had a really lovely day out with a lot of people we have never met before.  We had met David and Judy and about three other people at the last trip we went on but all the rest were new to us.  We have missed four meetings because of being away at various places, but it does not matter because with this sort of thing you can just drop in and out as you wish.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Home Sweet Home

Well, we had an uneventful journey home on Monday and I have nearly caught up with all the laundry.  I am going to make occasional postings here when not wandering though so that the blog remains active.

We came home to a new bathroom which had been fitted in our absence and it is absolutely fabulous.  Strictly speaking it is a shower room now, we have one of those walk in showers with a seat which can be lowered on one side to sit down whilst showering and grab rails to get in and out.  We don't actually need it yet but we think it is well to prepare now for a hopefully long time away when we do.  Neither of us has laid in a bath for years, we much prefer showers, so it has been done with only us in mind.  I have a copy of The Wilton Diptych in the bathroom and that has decided the colour scheme.  All the fittings are white (new modern lavatory and basin) and most of the tiles are too, there are a dozen or so tiles with a pattern of a three shades of blue in squares.  The floor is blue with golden speckles and whilst in Malta I bought a large Maltese Cross at Mdina Glass which is the same blue as the floor and has bits of gold in it. 

I feel like a top class interior designer!

However, the kitchen now looks shabby so I have surrounded myself with brochurs and graph paper!

Sunday, 13 March 2011


I would like to say thank you to those of you who have posted comments - I feel very privileged to have shared this wonderful holiday.  It has been an amazing journey and I have thoroughly enjoyed myself.  For anyone who is interested in art and history it is an incredible place, and the food and drink are quite interesting too.

We brought my laptop which only has Windows2000 but Onslows Big Stuff at home has Windows 7 so that may enable some of his fabulous photographs to be posted.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Armaments and Art

Yesterday we got up early, had a light breakfast and set off for Fort Rinella.  This journey entails a change of bus at Valletta and we are back in at the bus station.  Apparently the temporary bus station was only because of Carnival, but the road up from Floriana is a building site.  It is awful, but at least one knows where to find the bus again. We caught the number 4 which goes out through Marsa and Paola, skirts the Three Cities and ends up out at the wilds of Fort Rinella.  A chap got on carrying a bird cage with a tiny little singing bird inside, he got off outside the women's prison at Paola - I wonder if he was taking the bird visiting?

At Fort Rinella a guided tour had just begun so we tagged on along at the back of it.  The tour guide was dressed as a Victorian soldier and extremely easy on the eye.  Probably in his mid twenties, he was extremely knowledgeable about the subject and had an enchanting accent and smile.  I may be a grandmother but always had a penchant for men in uniform - after all, I did marry one.  There is not an awful lot to see at the fort, a massive Armstrong gun held Onslow's attention for a while, and we wandered around the museum area where there was a very good exhibition of Victorian military paraphenalia.  The officer's bunk had a gruesome stuffed cat on the bed and the common soldier's barracked bed brought back memories of my own Army service. 

The really interesting things - to me anyway - were the demonstations.  My young soldier, now known as Manoel and my new best friend, firstly showed how information was communicated via mirrors, lamps and semaphore.  There was a tiny Asian gentleman who really had a problem understanding the mirrors and Morse - this chap could only have been about four feet high and he was weighed down with cameras, two of which had telephoto lenses which must been over a foot long.  If you had put them all together I am pretty sure they would have been taller than he was.  Manoel explained that the signallers were very highly skilled and protected from the worst of battle, the infantry and cavalry were much more expendable.  Since my army service had me trained and attached to the Royal Signals I decided that I was obviously the Creme de la Creme and Onslow might stop calling me Monica (my obsessive list making as per Monica in Friends) and start calling me Miss Brodie any minute now.  The second demonstration was of rifles, Manoel showed how they developed from flintlock all the way to breech loading over about four hundred years.  He fired a few and big bangs reverberated in the fort, I could imagine that defence of a fortification like that would be extremely noisy.

We did not stay for the drill demonstations and instead headed back to Valletta to go to the Museum of Archeology to see the famous Sleeping Lady since our Heritage pass covered us for this.  The chap on the desk gave us a couple of leaflets and told us to start at the top floor so we caught the lift up and there before us was the most enormous treat - an Art Nouveau exhibition featuring the work of Alphonse Mucha.  I was not familiar with the name but recognised some of the work, the famous "Seasons" series of beautiful women lounging around in their nighties with symbols of the different seasons was one section.  Some of the graphics from poster designs were also familiar, the Ruinart champagne advertisement in particular.  There were also all the posters advertising Sarah Bernhardt's theatrical triumphs - I had never seen the "Hamlet" before.  It was truly a magnificent exhibition and I could easily have missed it.

And then we went for an ice cream and caught our final ferry from Valletta back to Sliema.  Today, our last day, we have nothing planned but the weather looks a bit wild and windy so I don't think we will get up to much.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Sausages and Ships

We are getting down to our last few days and only had two things left on the to do list.  One was Fort Rinella and the other a harbour cruise for which we have a Captain Morgan voucher.  So yesterday we got up, had a cooked breakfast and I packed up sandwiches and found drinks to make the journey out to Fort Rinella.  I wandered on to the balcony to hang a bit of laundry out to dry and discovered that the sun was beating down, the sky was blue and it looked like a glorious wind free day.  So we shoved the packed lunches in the fridge and went off to do a harbour cruise instead.  It was good, but I think on balance the Luzzu cruise we did a few weeks ago was better.  The Luzzu boats go up all the creeks and the Captain Morgan one only did about half the distance.  There are more warships in Grand Harbour, we saw two Indian and one Korean as well as Cumberland - they are obviously here to rescue nationals who have been working in Libya.

We came back to the flat and had our packed lunch and then I went wandering off to do some food shopping, probably the last we will need because we go home on Monday.  I bought some interesting looking sausages, very coarsely ground pork which looked as though they had spices dotted around.  The butcher told me that they were special Maltese sausages with pepper and "things" mixed in - his own secret recipe.  They were quite large so I asked for three and they weighed just over 400g, plenty for two greedy people.  I then went to the greengrocer for some potatoes and a cabbage but the cabbages were all huge and as I pondered about them the chap just chopped one in half, cut off the outer leaves and then weighed my portion.  Not a habit I am accustomed to in the wilds of Worcestershire.

The sausages were fabulous, porky, peppery, garlicky and quite salty with a very firm texture.  I made some onion gravy using a cup a soup and an onion and was quite impressed with it, an emergency gravy when camping or self catering which was very palatable.

We now have Saturday and Sunday left and only Fort Rinella to do before going home on Monday. 

Thursday, 10 March 2011

St John's Co-Cathedral

Yesterday afternoon we went to St John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta.  It was fairly high on the list of places to see but every time we went into Valletta  a cruise ship had docked and the queues were a bit off putting.  There was no queue yesterday so we went in, it is absolutely unbelieveable.  Outside is a plain limestone building with no clues about the ornate decoration inside.  It was for over two hundred years the conventual church of the Order of the Knights of St John and all eight langues vied with each other to produce the most ornate chapel.  The Grand Masters and Knights donated wonderful gifts of major works of art.  Preti is the main painter contributing but there are lots of other works, including a Carravagio.  There are over four hundred tombs covered by marble heraldic shields as a floor, even the protective carpeting has Maltese Crosses in the design.  There are quite a few marble monuments, one to Nicholas Cotoner is particularly fine, there is a length of chain mail carved from the Carreras marble which is incredible.

I have never before seen such a wonderful High Baroque interior.  One of the chapels was not open because of restoration work so I will just have to return in a couple of years and see it, and the rest of it again.  There was a separate exhibition of tapestries and vestments, we saw an amazing collection of these at Avignon some years ago but the Grand Knights' collection can hold its own.  Some of them were worked in silver thread and must have been rather heavy to wear.

We felt we deserved an ice cream after all that culture and headed for the posh place in the square but I got sales resistance at the prices.  For a cone to eat whilst  walking about it was E3.80 so I did not even look at the sitting down prices.  We turned the corner and went to Marks and Spencer cafe and got a big bowl for £2.30, the day's English newspapers were thrown in too.  They have an unusual method of ordering food and drink in the cafe, you go to the till and order and pay and then take your receipt to the counter and are served.  We could do with that system in Worcester, I have given up using the cafe there because the coffee is always cold by the time you have queued to pay.


Onslow is getting a bit fed up of churches and hates the number 65 bus with a venom so I got up early and left him in bed and went off to Mosta on my own.  One of the lovely things about Malta is that I feel quite happy wandering around on my own, because everyone speaks English and they drive on the left it all seems very unthreatening.  I regularly leave the flat at around 0745 to go to the supermarket and the lady who lives round the corner has started ambushing me for a chat so I built in time to talk to her on the way for the bus.  She has three sons, all of them married to tarts apparently, who never visit her.  Her grandchildren have not been properly brought up and she very seldom sees them either.  Human nature eh?  It is the same the world over.  She is very nice to me (I am obviously not a tart and would make a fine daughter-in-law) and we regularly spend ten minutes sorting the world out.  If I am accompanied by Onslow she never appears.  I think she must look out of her side balcony window, spot me turning the corner and rush down to greet me.

Mosta - incredible.  I was there for just before nine and the Dome (or Rotunda) was practically empty.  There were a couple of men at their devotions so I simply put my scarf on and sat quietly at the back whilst I took in the full splendour of this beautiful church.  It is huge, I think the only domed church I have been in which is larger is St Peter's in Rome.   I counted the rows of chairs in front of me and then counted the number in each row and a bit of mental arithmetic revealed that there were at least 1400 seats so celebrations of Mass could take in most of the district.  There are six side chapels and the altars would be needed to provide communion for so many at one service.  The side chapels themselves are sort of half dome shaped and have three major paintings in each, and the parts of the church separating them have another three each.  Then the main entrance with the glorious statues and the main altar with wonderful paintings and the fantastic painted Stations of the Cross means that there were about fifty major works of art to enjoy.  And the domed ceiling with the gold bosses leading up to the blue and gold petal pattern was just awesome. 

I am so glad that I went early, by about 0940 tourists by the bus load appeared and the beautiful peace was shattered.  There were four tours of about thirty or forty people in each group in the church by the time I left, two German, one Italian and one British.  All the leaders were lecturing their groups and it sounded like the Tower of Babel.

I know that I am a tourist too, but at least I am a quiet one.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

St Julians and Marsaxlokk

The weather is bright and sunny and quite warm but the sea is pretty vicious at the moment and none of the boat trips are happening.  No matter, we just adopted plan B and yesterday took the bus to St Julians which is not very far away and just around Spinola Bay from where we are in Gzira.  St Julians has a modern Augustinian church which is only open for masses, it looked very interesting though in a Paddy's Wigwam sort of way.  There is also a yacht harbour full of rich men's playthings.  There are two separate harbours, one for motor boats and the other for sailing boats and a happy hour was spent wandering around in the sunshine looking at them.  We came across a delightful bronze statue of a fisherman mending his net, trying to extricate a small fish from the net and being extremely closely observed by a little bronze cat a few feet away.  Charming. 

We thought we would have lunch out and Onslow spotted McDonalds so we went there.  It was a rather odd McDonalds, at the front overlooking the harbour is what is called "McCaff" and this has people serving coffee and cakes, quite a decent selection of both.  Behind that is the traditional McDonalds and upstairs there is a party room - it sounded as though a few hundred small people were celebrating the end of Carnival up there.

We came back to the flat and I went for a lovely long swim, I was in the pool for a good hour and never saw another soul.  The sun was shining in through the glass walls, I could see the skyline of Valletta every other length and it was one of the best swims I have ever had.

We got up this morning intending to do the other harbour cruise we have a voucher for but it is still pretty windy out there so no boats were working.  We instead took the bus to Marsaxlokk and spent a pleasant hour just sitting by the sea and watching the fishermen.  The water there was very calm and the sun was beating down and it is only about six miles away.  We opted to have lunch in Marsaxlokk and found a table by the quayside outside Cafe de Paris and ordered a set lunch.  Onslow had fish soup and I had garlic bread as a starter, his soup was broth like in consistency but very strong on flavour, my garlic bread was simply a slice of bread spread with garlic butter and then sprinkled with cheese before baking for a few minutes - both were fabulous.  We both then opted for the mussels and chips, a very large plate with about twenty five mussels in a garlicky buttery sauce, a heap of chips and a generous portion of salad.  A basket of bread and butter on the side completed the food.  Three glasses of wine, a large diet Coke and a coffee brought the total cost to just under seventeen Euros.  How do they do it?

We were early for our return bus, which is just as well because the bus left five minutes before it was even due to arrive!  Bus timetables are regarded as a challenge by the drivers I think because they seldom work as per the schedule I have.

Monday, 7 March 2011


Yesterday was Carnival Day so we got up early, fortified ourselves with a large breakfast, packed up sandwiches and drinks and went off to Valletta.  The city was absolutely heaving but business was going on as usual.  All the shops and restaurants were open, the tourist attractions had queues and apart from about thirty percent of the population being in fancy dress of some sort it looked like a normal day.

We spent some time in Palace Square watching the dancers who were entertaining the crowds by practising their routines ready for the competition later.  We went for a walk down Strait Street which used to be the red light district (it could still well be for all I know, but no-one was touting for business in the late morning) known as The Gut and then went to the pub where Oliver Reed died after a massive drinking session.  The pub is called The Pub and is now a shrine to Oliver Reed, it is very small and only licensed to serve 27 customers.  It seemed to be an Ex Pat haven, serves guest ales and is decorated in the style of a British pub in the 1950's.

We then went up to Upper Barakka Gardens which overlook the Grand Harbour and found a bench to sit on to eat our packed lunch.  It was about one o clock by this time, the sun was shining and it was very pleasant.  We shared our bench with a chap who had stripped off his top, anointed himself with sun cream and was obviously attempting to gain a tan.  I thought he was probably British and was right, I later discovered (the minute he opened his mouth) that he was a Mancunian.  I spotted something on the horizon out at sea which made me get my binoculars out for a closer look, it was HMS Cumberland, returning from Libya with a ship full of refugees.  We watched the Cumberland dock just below us and it felt very strange, as though we were watching history being made.  I had a quite a lump in my throat - it is one thing to see the images on television but quite another to actually see it happening live.

We went for a coffee and then made our way to Triton fountain where we had tickets for the grandstand seating to watch the dance competition and the carnival parade.  The seating was first come first served and we were in the first fifty or so and got really good seats about halfway up the bank, at the end of a row and in the middle of the area so we had a fabulous view.

The Maltese like colour, they like sparkle and they like dancing.   The main colours in use were air sea rescue shades of orange, yellow, pink and green.  With huge amounts of gold and silver, just to make them stand out.  Put the lot together and it makes Strictly look like an afternoon tea dance for a gang of OAP's.  We watched about twenty different teams of dancers in the competition and they were  amazing, all of them.  The costumes were very flamboyant and absolutely massive, they mainly seemed to be made from a sort of foam backed plastic which was heat welded to hold the intended shapes.   I have muddled them up in my brain now but will try to describe a couple of the tableaus to give an idea of what we saw.

There was one lot who did an "Alice in Wonderland" routine and there were half a dozen of each of the suits of playing cards and their costumes took up about four times their body space, all stuck out.  Johnny Depp had heavily influenced the Mad Hatter, the Griffin was there - ten times life sized and very, very, green - Alice herself looked as though she was a Star Wars warrior and the Queen was grotesque.

Another lot did a French tableau, set in costumes reminiscent of Madam Pompadour, which for some reason I still cannot fathom had some men dressed up like pantomime cows with massive Red Indian head-dresses in the back row.  The women all had an Eiffel Tower sculpted on the back of their dresses and the men's hats had more feathers than one sees on the average peacock.

Another set had the men dressed as jesters, a tasteful combination of orange and purple one side of the arena and a very fetching mixture of yellow and pink the other side.  Several pom poms were lost in that energetic little number which might well have cost them points.

The dancing took almost two hours and then the carnival procession started, the violent colours continued in the floats and they are huge.  We had seen most of the floats when they were parked earlier so we only watched the first half dozen and then gave up and came back to the apartment.  It was truly a magnificent sight though and I am so glad to have seen it.

Back in Sliema we went back to the pizza restaurant and this time shared one of those wonderful pizzas with a side salad and wine and it cost less than twenty Euros and was a perfect end to a perfect day.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Children's Carnival

Yesterday was the children's day at Malta carnival and I went across to Valletta on the early ferry to see what was happening.  Onslow decided to have a lazy day back at the apartment so I left him to it and wandered off on my own.  The way to the ferry along the promenade has loads of booths with people selling excursions, bus tickets, boat trips etc and about every ten paces I get accosted and asked if I want to do something.  It is a bit like running a gauntlet of a hundred Big Issue sellers in a ten minute walk.  I have learned to keep my head down and just walk fast to avoid them.

I got across to Valletta and walked up the many steps to Palace Square and the children started to arrive.  They were truly magnificent, not one of them more than three feet high and beautifully dressed up in costumes.  There were hundreds of princesses and queens, lots of flamenco dancers, nurses, and witches.  Quite a few children had obviously been to Disney (I have not seen a shop on the island) because Snow White, Minnie Mouse and Tinkerbell were out in force.  The boys were brilliant, Superman and Spider Man have costumes with padded muscles on the arms and chests and look rather weird.  There were many fine pirates, a particularly vicious one shot me with his gun and then wielded his cutlass at my throat, his little sister was a nurse and stuck a plaster on my hand to make me better.  A few Knights of Malta, a particularly dashing naval officer and Dracula were there too.  There was a pushchair with what looked a red furry strawberry in it which when I looked closely had a baby's face in the middle -  you are obviously never too young for Carnival.  There were several double pushchairs with twins in them, a particularly fine pair of Pierrots caught my eye.  The entire twelve year old female population of Malta appeared to have decided to attend wearing pyjamas and clutching soft toys.  The families were out in force, every Granny on the island was pretending to be David Bailey and every Grandpa was pretending he had never seen her before in his life. It really was a lovely occasion, no drunks, no violence, no litter.  Just happy families rejoicing in their young.

One thing that really struck me yesterday was how slim and smart the Maltese are.  Yesterday was a festival day and so one would expect them to be in their Sunday best, but even on ordinary days everyone dresses properly.   I have been wracking my brain trying to think back and in the three weeks we have so far been here the only fat people I have come across have been either British or German.  There are no lardy girls with pushchairs or slovenly youths with builders' bums hanging out of their jeans.  Sliema has a KFC, a McDonalds and a Burger King so it cannot just be fast food that is to blame for obesity.

Today we have tickets for the Grandstand for the main Carnival procession so I will report back on that later.

Saturday, 5 March 2011


Yesterday we had a day in Gozo which entailed an early start since we were collected at 0745 and driven up to the ferry port at the north of the island, collecting other people en route, in time for the 1000 ferry.  The ferry port is very scruffy, if anyone can remember Dover in the days of the British Rail ferries back in the 1960's you will get an idea of what I am talking about.  No proper facilities, a grubby looking caff and queuing outside waiting to board.  The Gozo ferries take cars and foot passengers have to walk up the car ramp and a bit of the car deck to reach steps which then go up to the lounge area.  The ferry itself was very clean, modern, good coffee cost only sixty five cents a cup so we have absolutely no complaints about the ferry itself, it is just a pity that the port is so dreary.

Arrival at Gozo is a totally different matter, a magnificent new terminal building, all marble and white walls, an escalator as well as stairs, spacious comfortable seating and a really nice food area.  It is difficult to believe that they are run by the same company.  The system for buying tickets means that they are only bought in Gozo - working on the assumption that there is only one way off the island no doubt.

We were met by a local chap with a mini bus, the Maltese driving standards are nobly upheld in Gozo.  Horns mean a variety of things "Morning Fred", "Outta my way", "Pillock" being only some of the interpretations we have put on the frequent blares.  The driver was very chatty and gave us a right sob story about being paid peanuts but felt that he was lucky to have any sort of job.  Softening us up for the tips later no doubt.

We went first to Ta Pinu shrine which is a pilgrimage place, the disabled come here for hope.  A sort of Maltese Lourdes.  The church itself is very beautiful, rather austere by Maltese standards.  It was only built in the early twentieth century and finished in 1931.  There is a lovely painting of The Blessed Virgin which was painted in the early seventeenth century, a three dimensional golden crown was added in 1935 and Pope John Paul II visited in 1990 and added five golden stars.  I thought it a lovely place, it felt very spiritual.  On the hill opposite are some large statue Stations of The Cross but we did not have time to go to see them and were whipped back into the mini bus.  We were taken to a craft market at Fontana but the very aggressive sales people put me off and I went outside.  I am so glad that I did because there is an ancient laundry room with stone sinks and tables for scrubbing clothes.  There were five sinks one side, four the other and some stone tables in the middle.  Across the road was another room with just three sinks, much smaller and no table.  I decided that the larger room was for washing and the smaller for rinsing.  These "rooms" are more like caves built into the hillside and a water spring just flows through the whole place - there are channels cut in the stone floor to enable the water to escape.  I had a lovely time making up stories of all the scandal that the women would gossip about whilst doing laundry (I doubt a man ever went there) and could just see the looks anyone with less than perfectly white sheets would get. 

There was construction work on the road to the Azure coast section so we never went there.  Carnival was beginning in Victoria so we never really got there either, a quick peep at the Citadel and off for lunch.  We went to a place called Xlendi for lunch and were shepherded into a restaurant called Two Fishes or something like that.  We ordered fried cod and chips (Bolton lad again) but got something extremely odd instead.  It is the Xlendi version of fried cod and chips.  I suspect, very strongly, that what we got was Vietnamese River Cobbler.  It had been poached.  It was served with two different sauces, half of the fish was covered with garlic softened in oil, the other half with a tomato/caper/olive sauce.  Both were absolutely delicious.  The bread was not the Maltese bread I have come to love, it was fairly ordinary white bread.  The waitress proudly told us that they make it on the premises - I think they would be better off buying it in.  The texture was almost cake like, we left most of it.  Still, with two pints (did I tell you I have graduated to a pint pot?) of Cisk and two coffees it was only 22 Euros so very good value. 

We then went to the Ggantija Temple - another Neolithic site - and because we had the Malta Heritage pass which covered us we went in.  I would not have been amused had I paid six Euros for the visit though, everything was roped off and it was impossible to imagine it as a temple.  you could only poke your head round a corner, not at all like Tarxien where you could "see" the rites taking place.  There was a stall inside selling local handicrafts - the chief amongst them seemed to be Aran sweaters - I am no expert but they looked exactly like the Irish ones we all wore in the 70's.  The driver then took us to Qual to a viewing point from where both Comino and Malta can be seen, and the view was quite incredible.  Then back to the ferry and a ten minute wait in the luxurious terminal.  As we walked off the ferry back in Malta (via the car deck) there was a queue of hundreds and hundreds of young people going across to the village of Nadur for carnival night, most of them dressed up.  Apparently Nadur has a night of total debauchery on the Saturday before Lent begins.

In conclusion I think that it is unfair to attempt to judge Gozo on this glimpse.  I felt that everyone wanted us to spend money and they were very vocal and aggressively encouraging us.  Not at all the experience I have had in Malta.    I think the  next time I come to Malta I would arrange to spend a week of the month in Gozo and have a proper look around.  Did I mention I will probably be wearing black?  It will apparently be over Onslow's dead body.

Valletta Again

On Friday we had a "free" day between two busy ones so I left Onslow at the flat to rest and went off to Valletta in pursuit of some grandstand tickets for the Carnival parade on Monday.  The chaos with the bus station seems to have calmed down, all buses are now going to Indepence Street and customers for Valletta alight there.  The buses then continue down to the docks area temporary station and people needing to change buses can do so.  All the buses from Independence Street to the docks are now operating as shuttle buses and are free, you only pay a fare when you get on to your chosen bus at the bus station.

I went to sort out the tickets and then had a bit of a mooch around.  There is a  special carnival cake called Puljizana made from cake crumbs mixed with ground and roasted whole almonds, studded with green and red glace cherries and shaped into a dome.  The cake is then covered with white icing, chocolate swirls and more cherries on the outside.  There was a chap with a huge one - about twice the size of the glass domes you see covering cakes in tea rooms - in front of the cathedral selling it by the slice so I bought a bit.  It was sixty seven cents per hundred grams and my slice was about 250g so not expensive.  The texture is damp, something like soft fudge or marzipan, and it slices very easily.  It is very, very, sweet and a little goes a long way.  I have eaten it twice with coffee so far and am not even half way through my slice.

St Francis of Assisi church was open so I slipped in for a look around and my brain must be becoming used to the OTT decoration which is the norm in Malta because it seemed fairly restrained.  It contains very unusual Stations of The Cross.  Each illustration is carved and placed inside an individual chapel, the illustrations themselves have been painted so the end result is both three dimensional and coloured - not a combination I have previously come across.  The little chapels are carved and gilded and all slightly different.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Mdina and Rabat

Yesterday we got up earlyish and caught the nine o clock yellow bus from Sliema Ferries to Rabat which is inland, it is right next door to Mdina but very little traffic is permitted in Mdina which is a walled city and extremely beautiful.  The bus ride itself was an adventure, one of the very oldest buses we have been on and extremely tatty.  Onslow said that he could understand the shock absorbers not being replaced three months before the new fleet comes in but felt they should have been replaced five years ago.  The driver kept on letting people on until the bus was absolutely packed out, people were sitting on knees in places and at least twenty people were standing.  It made the Tube at rush hour look empty.  There is a sign on the bus that clearly states it is licensed to carry forty people, I counted sixty seven and a pushchair.  At Naxxar a motorbike policeman waved the driver to stop and gave him a right old telling off, wrote down the number and the time (he looked at his watch) and then sent the driver on without removing any passengers.  It took a good hour to get to Rabat and Onslow says it was the most uncomfortable bus ride of his life.

At Rabat we headed for The Little Train which does a circular route of the area and from some distance there are wonderful views of Mdina.  We went through Mtarfa which is where the Royal Signals and WRAC were stationed in the sixties and seventies and if any of my friends from those days who were posted there read this, the clock tower is still standing.  Mtarfa itself has a lot of new building though and has grown considerably from the little village it was then.  The train ride was lovely and the commentary pointed out things of interest so afterwards we went off to have a look at St Paul's Catacombs and church which were most interesting and then it was time to seek out lunch.  And we had the most fabulous lunch at Ristorante Constanza Navarro.  A simple set lunch, I had penne with a rabbit sauce to start and Onslow had some cheese ravioli in a rich tomato sauce - huge portions and absolutely delicious.  For mains we both had the Bragioli which is a sort of beef olive and this was totally different from the one we had in Valletta a couple of weeks ago.  A very thin slice of beef had a very thin slice of ham laid on it and then chopped hard boiled eggs,  raisins and onions were mixed together, spread on it and rolled up and tied.  The spicing was definitely Moorish in execution.  They were cooked in a rich tomato sauce studded with chunks of carrot and decorated with half a dozen tinned marrowfat peas (a very Maltese garnish I am beginning to find) and served with loads of chips.  The pudding was halva, but not halva like I have ever come across before.  It was dry and crumbly and almost powdery when in the mouth - it was absolutely fantastic.  Two beers each accompanied lunch and the total cost was twenty seven Euro for the two of is.  I am now trying to work out how to get back there for some more of that halva.  I know I won't get Onslow on the bus again.

The afternoon was spent in Mdina in various museums and simply wandering around in the sunshine, going up and down the ramparts and soaking up the atmosphere.  The architecture is absolutely wonderful, a lot of baroque and very "French" looking in places.  The lovely golden sandstone creates such a visually beautiful image and the city is very well maintained.  There are horses and carriages driving people round but we just walked and walked.

We went to catch the bus back and it was the same driver - who crammed it full again.  Onslow thinks he is on commission and needed to earn extra money to pay the impending fine from the morning!

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

South of Valletta

Today we did the open top bus tour which goes from Sliema to Valletta, Vittorioso, Paola, Marsaxlokk and The Blue Grotto.  Not an unqualifed success generally.  We have used the City Sightseeing tours all over the place but I have to say that in Malta they are less than satisfactory.  The bus was very late turning up (almost an hour), the speaker system worked for about twenty minutes altogether in the whole day and our first bus lost its silencer at one point and a replacement bus was required.  The weather was a bit rough for the boats to operate at The Blue Grotto so we just had a bit of a mooch around.  There was not very much to see and one woman refused to let us in the gift shop because she was closing.  At 1545hrs.  Did she not want to sell any stock to a captive audience?

However, we did not let it spoil our fun and had a very nice day despite all the problems.  We went to Valletta and had what is advertised as a walking tour - it walked about a hundred yards down Merchant Street from the Prime Minister's Palace and then back up to Upper Barraka Gardens.  Then back on the bus.  To be fair, the chap leading the tour was very knowledgeable about the Knights, pointed out and explained the architectural symbolism of the Langues we did see and gave a really good explanation of The Grand Harbour.  Apparently the Prime Minister holds Open House on New Year's Day and just sits in his office whilst the entire population of the Island wander in to wish him a Happy New Year.  I approve of that.  He does it again on a specific date in September but I cannot remember when.  We dipped out of the tour of Vittorosio because we spent the whole day there last week and went for a coffee by the marina.  The yacht Samara complete with helicopter is still sitting there waiting for a call.  From Libya perhaps?  At Paola the bus stopped by the Tarxien Temples so we just sat there and read our books having visited only yesterday.

The next stop was Marsaxlokk which was absolutely delightful.  We had a very nice lunch - not quite what I expected but different and delicious.  The menu said Seafood Platter  for two for thirty five Euros which sounded like a bargain.  I expected a French style Fruits de Mer and got a massive platter of different shellfish, all hot, plus a bowl of fried potatoes and a bowl of salad and the obligatory Maltese bread.  The seafood consisted of mussels (ordinary and green lipped), clams, razor clams, scallops, king prawns and a heap of braised octupus which is the nicest I have ever tasted.  Very soft and luscious with a faintly liquorice tinge to the sauce.  Interrogation of the kitchen revealed it had been braised for hours in olive oil, lemon juice and water and then at the point of serving a good tablespoon of a mixture of mint, parsley and Greek basil was chopped finely and stirred in.  Quite one of the most delicious things to come my way.  The fishing village itself is lovely, there were hundreds of the brightly coloured boats with the eyes painted on the prow, fishermen mending their nets, a little market with lots of Maltese lace and generally a lovely atmosphere.  There is a big fish market there on Sundays and it is our intention to return one of the next two Sundays to see it.

The climb in the bus up to the Blue Grotto area was quite spectacular.  I am not awfully good at heights so just looked the other way for a lot of it.  The area near the car park overlooks a lot of rock pools, some of which have been cemented over to provide look out/fishing points for people.  There were loads of cats in this area, all sunning themselves and not deigning to notice the incomers from the bus.  They are obviously used to the hordes invading and just carried on washing.  Or sleeping.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Neolithic and Earlier Malta

Well, the sun has got his hat on, we had tickets for the Hypogeum anyway at 2pm and decided to make a day of it and went off to see the Tarxien temples first.  It is a jolly good job that we have a well developed sense of the ridiculous because the transport system is in total chaos.  We had no idea that Valletta bus station closed yesterday and will not re-open until Arriva takes over on 3rd July.  So instead of the buses sticking to timetables and routes they are all over the place.  There is a temporary bus station down by the docks and our 62 went through Floriana and round by the Knights' Dome instead of on our usual route.  We then had to find the second bus without there being allocated stands for different numbers - but we managed.  It all took rather longer than anticipated though so I was very glad we had plenty of extra time built in.  The Hypogeum only admits limited numbers, the tickets are booked up loads of time in advance and if you miss your slot you simply miss it and there is no refund.

We got to Paolo which is a working class district, most of the residents up until the British left were employed at the dockyard and it is a bit seedy but entrancing architecurally.  The balconies abound and I saw some new variations on the theme there.  My guide book had warned me there was nowhere to eat in Paolo so I had a decent breakfast before we left.  Whilst wandering around looking at balconies I came across one of the mobile greengrocery vans and his produce looked superb.  I bought some grapes which were fabulous, about the size of figs and that purply green colour which figs have.  They were juicy and delicious and had pips in them so I had a lovely time having a spitting contest with myself in a secluded public garden near Tarxien.  I suspect people were watching from windows - but I am past the age of worrying about what people think of my behaviour and I hope the seeds sprout into lots of vines and grow up the trunk of the tree I was aiming at.  Tarxien itself was OK and it was quite pleasant wandering around the stones looking at the plantings in the surrounding area.  Nasturtiums and snapdragons are in full flower here, as are lilies and even a few dog roses.

Now - the big one - Hypogeum.  Very difficult to describe.  Try and imagine a simple non-comformist chapel with several rooms for different purposes on three levels.  Built underground, hewn out of rock with nothing more than antler horns and flints as tools.  About five thousand years ago.  Some of these rooms were quite large and every bit of stone had been dug away leaving the space.  The ceilings looked like they were made up of several pieces of stone - getting smaller in diameter as they reached the top - but were actually just a massive lump of rock eaten away from the inside.  The whole thing is a sort of burial chamber but apparently people were not put there until most of the flesh had decomposed - a bone chamber.    It was awesome.  The tour takes about fifty minutes and was an hour very well spent.  It is insisted that you turn up fifteen minutes before the tour time and whilst we were waiting a local chap (obviously well known to the security staff) came and entertained us.  I think "Care in the Community" might give you an idea of his behaviour.  He was harmless and just wanted to chat to the ten people waiting and offer them a bite of his mortadella butty - no-one took him up on it.

The bus trip back was fairly uneventful and it will be an early night tonight.  The weather has turned and it is glorious sunshine everywhere so tomorrow we will do the South island tour.