I was reading an article on a right-leaning website explaining that right after a hard Brexit, probably as soon as March 32nd, we would have sunshine everyday, there would be unicorns roaming free in the woods and beer would only cost 35p a pint. I had just got to the bit telling me that if we did not leave in two weeks, then EU bureaucrats were getting ready to force us to wear Lederhosen and eat sauerkraut for breakfast every day, when Madam interrupted me.
‘Where was Game of Thrones filmed?” she asked.
‘All over I think. Northern Ireland, Iceland, Malta.’ I replied.
‘Malta?’ she asked, ‘is that warm and sunny?’
‘Probably. It’s in the Mediterranean, below Sicily. It was the setting for Kings Landing I think.’ I replied.
I knew what was coming so I tried to distract her.
‘How do you make a Maltese Cross?’ I asked her.
She gave me a look that didn’t appear overly friendly and said ‘I don’t know, how do you make a Maltese Cross?’
‘You step on his toes!’ I said.
She didn’t laugh. She just looked through the window at the low grey clouds and said, ‘Book some tickets. We are going to Malta.’
It used to be – and I am going back many years here – that once through security at the airport you were dumped out directly into the departure lounge where you might, if you were lucky, find some cheap plastic chairs and could join the long queue at the stall selling a cup of instant coffee and a stale bun.
Later they introduced a duty free shop (where the stuff really was duty free and worth buying) and maybe a couple of useful travel shops and a half decent restaurant. Those of us of a certain age might consider that, at this point, it reached its peak.
Nowadays it seems that no airport is complete without a vast indoor mall with dozens of gift shops, restaurants and clothes shops. Should you be completely brain-damaged and forgot to put on a pair of trousers and a shirt before heading to the airport, or are perhaps in desperate need of a Harry Potter keyring, you are well catered for. Such is the volume of brightly coloured advertisements and glaring signs offering five kilograms of chocolate in a special gift box, or two for one underwear, it is hard to actually see useful stuff like the sign leading to the toilets or departure gates.
While I’m on the subject, wouldn’t it make sense to sell clothes in the arrival hall after the airline loses your luggage, rather than before you fly?
Unfortunately a recent introduction is that they now lead you through the entire “duty free” shop via a winding path like a snake with no sense of direction. You are forced through vast displays of whisky, perfumes, cigarettes and sunglasses just to get to the rest of the shops in the lounge, never mind the departure area. Sales assistants stand by the side of the path ready to pounce should you show the slightest interest.
We eventually made it through and found a seat and Madam pulled out her knitting. The seats were crowded. People were looking at their phones or trying to sleep. I had a desultory look round the shops, more to pass the time than anything.
A line of travellers were standing, clutching the handles of wheeled suitcases, staring up at the departures board as if waiting for a sign from the heavens. Occasionally, someone would jump up and run to their departure gate, their case clattering behind, as though getting to the gate an hour early would get them to their destination more quickly.
But enough of the grumbling, we are going on holiday.
We picked a date right in the middle of storm Gareth buffeting the whole of Europe. Sustained winds of 50 mph and gusts of 70 mph. Madam was a little stressed at the thought of take off in strong winds.
The pilot telling us that the plane was slightly delayed due to some bad weather and that the take-off might be “a little bumpy” didn’t help Madam’s disposition.
I had managed to develop a chest infection a couple of days earlier and the doctor had prescribed some codeine based medicine so my brain was already floating several hundred feet above the earth and I wasn’t much concerned.
Just before landing the pilot turned on the intercom and told us that the strong winds we had left in England had followed us all the way to Malta and that the landing might be a little rough. I looked out of the side window and watched the wings swaying up and down as the plane rocked in the wind. I suddenly had a worrying thought. What would happen if one of the wing tips touched the ground before the wheels, and who would feed the chickens if I was incinerated in a fiery crash? Then I remembered that I didn’t have chickens and I was calm again. Codeine does that to you. The landing was fine of course but there was an audible collective sigh of relief from the passengers as the plane slowed to a halt.
To quote Madam’s own words it was “the bumpiest, swayiest descent I have ever experienced.”
‘No, the seatbelts don’t work’ and ‘I am driving illegally at the moment’ are probably not the first words you want to hear from a taxi driver. Compared to say ‘I will take you by the shortest route’ or ‘no, please, no tips’ those phrases leave something to be desired.
He was a pleasant young man who, to be fair, delivered us in one piece from the airport to the hotel with only a few damaged wing mirrors along the way.
‘These streets are really narrow,’ he said without any obvious concern as he hit the third mirror.
As he pulled up outside the hotel he told us he would be happy to drive us around Malta tomorrow for only €25 an hour. He assured us he could drive really quickly to minimise the time we needed. Madam took his phone number and involved him in a discussion about national foods in Malta (Rabbit Stew and Pea Pasties) while I went to buy two seven-day bus passes.
We caught the bus into Valletta on our first morning and wandered the steep and narrow streets in a fairly aimless fashion, stopping to take photographs and look in shop windows. We walked down to the edge of the city wall, around the peninsula and back up a steep hill along a busy main road.
Malta is an odd mix of Britain and a Mediterranean island. The streets are narrow, the buildings look Italian or Spanish but the shops are distinctly British. We saw Debenhams, Marks and Spencer, Boots, Matalan, Peacocks, Zara and many more. The phone boxes and post boxes are red. There is a statue of Queen Victoria in the main square. They drive on the left. English is an official language of the island along with Maltese. Sensibly, most restaurants and cafes are locally owned apart from the ubiquitous American fast-food outlets.
‘This is amazing. I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s so blue’ said Madam.
‘Yes, it’s the Mediterranean’ I replied.
‘But it’s so BLUE!’ she said, ‘it’s like the pages of National Geographic!’
We were standing in the Upper Barakka Gardens overlooking the Grand Harbour, waiting for the daily noon canon salute. There was a soldier wandering between two canons doing soldiery things with levers and wire pokey implements. We stood in a line of people four deep, directly above the canons waiting in anticipation. Most people were holding phones above their heads ready to record a video, Madam included.
I stood braced, ready to cover my ears.
He pressed a button on the first canon and there was a brief “phut”. I looked at Madam and she looked at me. She almost put her phone down. I’ve probably had louder farts. The soldier, without any sign of embarrassment, moved to the second canon and pressed a button. This time there was a proper bang and a cloud of white smoke. The crowd dispersed more quickly than the smoke.
‘Was that it?’ I asked Madam.
She was equally underwhelmed and just shrugged and said ‘There’s a cafe over there, we can sit in the sun and watch the sea. It’s really blue.’
We had walked almost five miles around Valletta, much of it up and down steep hills so, after a nice lunch at the extravagantly decorated Caffe Cordina, we headed back to the hotel.
‘Make sure you check Trip Advisor’ I told Madam.
We were looking for somewhere to eat dinner. After a bad experience in Brugge we rarely go into a restaurant without checking reviews. We were in Brugge for a few days many years ago and picked a restaurant on the main square at random. It was probably the worst meal we had ever had outside of school dinners. No, correction, it was worse than most school dinners. We complained to the waiter who just shrugged and walked away. We pulled up Trip Advisor on the way out to leave an appropriate review only to find it had the lowest rating of all restaurants in Brugge. It was so bad we even stood outside for a while to warn other potential customers.
There were several eating establishments along the harbour front of Sleima, close to the hotel but were mostly of the pizza, beer and burgers variety.
‘There’s a tapas restaurant that has good reviews’ she said.
‘Spanish food in Malta?’ I asked. Why not, I thought.
The restaurant, La Vida, turned out to have the best tapas we’ve had anywhere, including any in Spain. You should go there immediately. The owner, who was Irish, told us they were a fusion of Spanish and South American cuisine.
Madam opened the hotel curtains and said ‘It’s so BLUE!’
Our second day was scheduled for a trip to Mdina by bus.
There’s an amazing bus service in Malta. Well, amazing compared to the UK. Buses are frequent and cover the whole island. You can travel the length of Malta for only €1.50. We rarely waited more than five minutes for a bus from our hotel in Sleima into Valletta, a service which ran 24 hours a day. It isn’t perfect. Buses are often crowded and aren’t useful if you are in a hurry. But then the roads in crowded Malta seem to have a near permanent traffic jam so nothing moves quickly.
As is the nature of public transport many routes run into and out of the capital so we travelled into Valletta, changed buses, then onto Mdina. Fifty minutes to go fifteen miles probably isn’t that impressive by modern transport standards but no wing mirrors were destroyed and everybody could afford the fare.
Mdina is a fortified medieval town enclosed in bastions, located on the island’s highest point in the centre of Malta. According to legend it was here that in 60 AD that the Apostle St. Paul is said to have lived in a cave after being shipwrecked on the Islands. Why he would walk several miles inland to the top of a hill rather than, say, wave down a passing ship to be rescued, is not recorded.
The town was the old capital of Malta, and with its narrow streets, few inhabitants (a permanent population of only 250 people), and a limited number of cars it is known as the Silent City. There is a horse-drawn buggy that takes the tourists around the narrow streets but this is required to have rubber rimmed wheels and the horses have rubber shoes. Silent, except for the hordes of tourists of course. We were there in March, out of the main season, but it was already busy with noisy tour groups and a steady stream of visitors.
We walked through narrow lanes but each seemed to be a wind tunnel. The temperature had dropped since yesterday and we were shivering after a few minutes. The high walls cast a heavy shade over every street. Yesterday we were basking in warm sunshine so neither of us had brought coats or a sweater.
‘Are you cold?’ Asked Madam.
I don’t want to be over-dramatic here but my lips were turning blue and my teeth were chattering so much that small flecks of enamel were spraying over the pavement.
I wrapped by arms around my body and said ‘I am a bit.’
‘We can go and buy some more clothes!’ She said brightly. Madam can never resist a chance to go clothes shopping.
Rabat is a more modern town with a population of 11,000, built around the gates of Mdina. It is served by precisely two clothes shops, one for men and one for women. We found two anorak-style body warmers, one red and one green which Madam assured me were the very height of fashion. For someone who last considered fashion during a purchase sometime in the 1970’s this seemed an absurd concept to involve but mine was half-price on the sale rack so I let it pass.
We donned our red and green coats and finally stopped shivering.
‘We look like Christmas,’ said Madam.
I pulled the zip up to the top of my coat and said ‘I’m more concerned with being warm at the moment. Besides, these are very fashionable you know.’
We headed back into the historic walled city and spent an hour wandering the narrow lanes and city walls. Several streets were used in the filming of Games of Thrones. We looked for recognisable locations but never saw anything specific, most of the lanes looked the same. A builder, high up on scaffolding, was busy with a hammer and cold chisel distressing a new stone wall to match the older walls.
Mdina has a history that goes back almost 3,000 years. It was founded as Maleth in the 8th century BC by Phoenician settlers, and was later renamed Melite by the Romans. The city adopted its present name, which derives from the Arabic word “Medina” during the Byzantine period. Quite why they dropped the “e” from the name is not clear One story is that the “e” from the entrance sign on the gates blew away one windy day and was never replaced.
There were several restaurants in Mdina, obviously aimed at tourists. We stopped for lunch at a one on a side street. Madam looked on her phone at Trip Advisor.
‘It has a four,’ she said, ‘there is one with a four and a half, I think it was the really expensive one on the square.’
Whenever Madam says the word “expensive” I break out into a cold sweat. My heart pounds and my stomach muscles tighten, often leading to a sharp egress of gas.
I pushed my wallet further into my pocket and tightly crossed my legs.
‘Four isn’t bad,’ I said.
‘They have rabbit on the menu. I want to try rabbit,’ said Madam.
I had a Margherita pizza. It tasted just like a frozen supermarket pizza. I suspect it may have been just that. Madam had Rabbit Bolognese. I asked her how it tasted. She looked into her empty bowl and thought for a minute.
‘Thumper,’ she said, ‘it tasted like Thumper, and a bit like chicken, or maybe beef, but mostly Thumper.’
She continued gazing into her empty bowl and muttered ‘Thumper… I just ate Thumper…. I don’t think I will eat rabbit again.’
She pushed her bowl aside and picked up her phone. Her fingers flicked on the screen from side to side. Suddenly, she thrust it towards me with a picture of the Mediterranean. ‘Look, it’s so BLUE!’ she said.
I opened the hotel room curtains and stopped half way.
‘You didn’t bring a raincoat did you?’ I asked.
‘No, need,’ said Madam, ‘the forecast was dry and sunny all week.’
She picked up her phone. ‘Just a 1% chance of rain today. I won’t need a coat.’
‘I wonder why all those people walking on the promenade are wearing raincoats and huddled under umbrellas’ I said.
Madam frowned and check her phone again. ‘No, definitely no rain today,’ she said.
We sat by window in the hotel restaurant and ate our breakfast watching the sheets of rain. I looked out towards the sea. ‘It’s so GREY.’ I said.
Madam didn’t look amused.
By the time we got back to the hotel room it had stopped raining but there were low dark clouds scudding across the sky, threatening more rain.
‘We could go to the mall.’ I suggested, ‘It’s just a couple of stops on the bus and the rain may have stopped by then.
‘They have clothes shops and…’
I was about to tell her they probably had shoe shops as well but she was already out of the door and halfway to the lift.
There were just a few spots of rain as we left the hotel. We walked the hundred yards to the bus stop and the rain restarted with a vengeance. Madam wrapped a flimsy scarf around her head and ran for shelter under a cafe awning. She looked at her phone.
‘It still says a 1% chance of rain’ she said.
Water was pouring from the cafe awning. People were running for cover. I thought for a while about probability and statistics but then I realised water was getting into my shoe so I stopped thinking and said ‘We’ll just get the first bus. It may go somewhere interesting and at least we will be dry.’
The rain only lasted another thirty minutes, the sun came out and everything dried so quickly you wouldn’t have known it have ever rained.
Madam had downloaded a Malta guide book onto her phone and she looked at the sections on Sleima and St Julians. It described them as one of the island’s most sought-after areas with swish apartment blocks, boutique stores and a hubbub of excellent restaurants. Clearly this warranted further exploration.
We caught a bus to what appeared to be the centre of town. All we found were shuttered shops and run down buildings. We wandered somewhat randomly down a few streets but everything looked the same. Most streets had a building site or two forcing us into the road, dodging cars and lorries. We walked up long steep hill looking for the Sleima described in the guide book. The road was chocked with cars. Everything was dusty and dirty.
‘I’m not so sure about your guide book’ I told Madam. ‘Either we are in the wrong area or they haven’t built it yet.’
I jumped aside as a rushing builder pushing a wheelbarrow tried to gain traction up the hill.
‘Can we go somewhere flat next time I am getting too old for all these hills.’ I said.
Madam stopped to catch her breath and said ‘Lubbock. Lubbock is flat I think. It’s brown and dry and sort of… square… but it is flat.’
‘As in Lubbock, Texas? What’s in Lubbock?’ I asked.
She looked at the Google on her phone and found a guide to the city. ‘Well, there’s a Buddy Holly statue and the American Windmill Museum.. and… Prairie Dog Town.’ she said.
‘Prairie Dog Town?’ I said.
‘Yes, it’s one of the most popular attractions in Lubbock according to the internet. It’s the fifth most visited attraction in the city.’ she said.
‘Prairie Dog Town?’ I repeated, ‘as in the small burrowing rodent? They have a whole town of them?’
I briefly thought about asking about the top four most visited but I was worried they were going to be something like a snakeskin shoe museum or an exhibition of belt buckles that would have Madam excitedly demanding an immediate trip.
I may not have conveyed a feeling of excitement at the thought of visiting the city, so she said ‘or there’s the Norfolk Broads, they are flat and might be more interesting than Lubbock.’
I nodded in agreement.
We caught another bus to try and find all the delights from the guide book but it ended up in a massive traffic jam. We sat on the bus as it inched slowly along the road. After thirty minutes we gave up with the bus and tried walking to St Julians, Every road was steep, chocked with parked cars and traffic. We were both becoming tired and frustrated at finding only decrepit areas and dusty building sites so we gave up and headed back down the hill to La Vida (still excellent) for a late lunch.
We had planned on going to the Three Cities, an area on the far side of Valletta, that afternoon but we were tired, dirty and frustrated so we ended up just going back to the hotel.
’I need a shower,’ said Madam.
Madam opened the hotel curtains and said ‘The sea is so BLUE!’
And it was. No sign of rain and the sun was shining brightly. The sky was a clear, bright blue. The weather forecast was still stubbornly stuck on 1% chance of rain.
Our third day was scheduled for a trip to Birgu, one of the Three Cities. These are directly across the Grand Harbour from Valletta. They are one of the oldest areas of Malta, built by the Knights of St John who settled here in the 16th century. Despite being only a few minutes from the busy capital the narrow streets have neither the crowds of visitors nor the busy traffic of Valletta.
The bus dropped us on outskirts of Birgu. A steep hill led down into the centre.
We passed the Inquisitors Palace on the way into the town centre. Madam can never resist anything with palace in the name and she started tugging on my arm. I looked inside the entrance towards the ticket office.
‘Six Euros each!’ I exclaimed, ‘There is a war museum up the road that looks far more interesting.’
The truth was that my memories of a recent trip seemed to be an endless succession of royal palaces, most of them identical. I wasn’t quite ready for another, even though it promised a history of the inquisition rather than rooms full of portraits of minor royals.
‘Let’s see what else is in the town,’ I said.
We walked down to the town square and wandered down streets at random with no destination in mind. Tall golden-stone buildings jostled together along the narrow lanes and passageways. Pots of shrubs or flowers were outside every doorway. It was mercifully quiet with only one small walking tour disturbing the peace. Locals were shopping, talking with friends and neighbours or just sitting outside enjoying the sun.
I liked Birgu a lot. The architecture was similar to Mdina but the latter was aimed at tourists and full of tourists. Birgu was full of ordinary people doing the things that ordinary people do.
‘Fifty cents! That’s more like it.’ I said.
A faded sign outside of a low narrow doorway announced the presence of a haunted house with an entrance fee of a mere fifty cents.
It was an 18th century house haunted by the ghost of a sixteen year old servant Marianna (allegedly) murdered by her employer, 56 year old landlord Lugrezio Cremona, who feared she was pregnant with his child. For some reason he was worried his wife might notice, so he strangled poor Marianna and cut her into pieces in a futile attempt to hide his misdeeds. His attempts at a clumsy cover up came to naught though and he was executed shortly thereafter. Ghostly shadows can still be occasionally seen in the house (allegedly).
The house, really just a basement room, was furnished in 18th century style with a narrow bed, table and chairs, a row of books on the bookcase, dried food and herbs hanging from the ceiling, glass bottles, pans, pots and utensils. Even a small writing desk complete with a quill pen and candle. It was all done incredibly well, better than many professional museums. We were the only visitors.
Nobody was guarding the room or the valuable artefacts, or indeed collecting money. There was just a small box by the entrance asking for donations.
I was so taken with the house, and indeed the enterprise and trust of the owner, that I was happy to drop a Euro in the donation box.
We headed back towards the Inquisitor Palace, as I knew we would.
‘Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition,’ I said as we walked into the entrance.
Madam shrugged and said ‘I expected you to say that earlier.’
I was only slightly mollified to find a €4.50 senior rate instead of €6.
It turned out to be all about the Roman Inquisition, rather than the Spanish, although I suspect there may have been a spot of collusion between the two branches.
The building was originally intended for use as the Civil Law courts but was taken over by the Inquisitor and incorporated his private residence and prison complex. The Roman Inquisition was established in 1542 to guard against the spread of the heresies of Protestantism and other religions. It lasted over 250 years until 1798. The inquisitor’s private quarters and chapel on the first floor are lavishly decorated and furnished unlike the spartan prison cells below.
Activities that had to be reported to the Holy Office for investigation included heretical opinion, magical activities, blasphemy, bigamy, love magic, witchcraft, superstitions, and cultural morality, possession of prohibited books and texts, and solicitation during confession.
I thought that the latter was probably some obscure religious term but I looked it up later on the Google and it seems there was a bit of a problem with priests requesting sexual favours of the penitents.
The mind boggles.
‘Hmm. Blasphemy…. that’s a tough one. How about three hail Mary’s and a blow-job?’
Visitors to the island were also prohibited from carrying any books, “printed at any heretical city, such as Geneva, Amsterdam, Leyden, London, or the like.”
A couple of rooms had facsimiles of torture equipment used and a looping film of the equipment in action. The display assured us that torture was only rarely used and then only consisted of a bit of muscle stretching. A doctor was on hand to make sure the victims were healthy and it was limited to only thirty minutes. Yeah, right. I’m sure it was followed by 15 minutes in a sauna, a nice massage and maybe a bit of gentle tickling to finish. The displays also assured us that most punishments were spiritual – a couple of prayers and maybe a leaflet to take home.
‘What else is there to do in Birgu?’ Asked Madam.
‘The War Museum is just up the road.’ I told her.
She sighed and said ‘I suppose we could see that… if we must.’
When we started travelling we researched every intended destination and had a list of places to go and things to do. We even spent money on a paper guidebook (which turned out to be useless) for our first overseas trip. I generally had some idea of the local history and geography.
Standing outside of the war museum I realised that I had no idea how Malta had fared in WW II. I had somehow assumed they were on our side due to having been a British colony but then they were physically close to, and had connections with, Italy. Had they been invaded and forced to live on rabbit sausages for five years?
The Malta at War Museum was pleased to rectify my ignorance.
‘Go to the far end and start from there. That way it will be in chronological order,’ the woman in the ticket office told us.
It seemed an odd idea and I was tempted to suggest putting the displays the other way round but we followed her instructions. It meant walking along a narrow passageway through all sorts of interesting looking display cases in a sort of reverse time order. It was like reading the last chapter of a book first.
Malta’s strategic location made it centre stage for the war in the Mediterranean as a key base in the North African campaign.The island suffered a severe bombardment during the war. Some 6,700 tones of German and Italian bombs fell on Malta over 154 days. A heavily damaged supply convoy managed to reach Malta in August 1942 saving the island. It later became the launch pads for the Allied invasion of Sicily.
The Maltese people ended the war with the distinction of being the only entire country’s population to be awarded the George Cross.
The museum, housed in an 18th century army barracks, sits on top of a massive underground rock-cut air raid shelter which offered refuge to hundreds of people. This shelter has been restored and forms part of the museum experience.
We donned bright yellow hard-hats and pushed through the plastic curtain. The rock passages narrowed quickly. My shoulders were scraping the sides of the walls, my head hitting the ceiling.
‘I see why we needed the hats now,’ I told Madam.
‘That is way better than the Inquisitors Palace!’ said Madam.
I crouched, bent over double, to get through a low doorway. The walls closed in on us from all sides.
‘I wonder when the last earthquake was?’ asked Madam.
‘You should worry more about the baked beans I had for breakfast.’ I told her.
I don’t suffer from claustrophobia and small places rarely bother me, but after a while I had had enough. There were maps and signs at strategic locations but I knew I could never find my way out if the lights failed. We made it almost to the end of the tunnels, shuffling sideways down the last of them. I was glad when we returned to the entrance and I could stand up straight and rub my aching knees.
I can only imagine how the people sheltering in the war felt, hundreds of them crammed in for hours at a time with only oil lamps and candles, listening to the bombers and vibrations overhead. Wondering if their home would still be there by morning.
In a thoughtful mood, we headed back to the bus stop.
Madam had noticed one of the highest rated restaurants, Anciova was only a few hundred yards from the hotel. Their website listed the opening time as 7pm, but we headed that way early and arrived at 6.50pm. It was already open and people were eating. We walked in and noticed that every table had a reserved sign. In a spirit of optimism rather than expectation we asked if they had a table for two. The waiter frowned but led us to a table that I can only describe as being on the end of the corridor leading to the kitchens.
Luckily the table behind finished early and with a bid of judicious shuffling of tables and chairs while the waiter wasn’t looking we found a spot where I could eat without my elbow getting knocked.
We ordered a “mixed starter for two”, mostly to avoid having to make a decision, together with a bottle of local red wine.
The starter was caponata (a Sicilian dish of aubergines, tomatoes, raisins, capers and pine nuts), calamari, fish cakes, baked mussels and anchovy salad.
Madam took a bite of the caponata.
‘Oh my God that was so good, oh my God that was that was amazing.’ she said between gasps of pleasure.
Several nearby diners looked over with interest. There goes blasphemy I thought.
She took a bite of the fishcake.
‘This is so good. This is amazing, oh my God this is SO GOOD!’ She said with another gasp of pleasure. A woman at the neighbouring table stopped eating and craned her neck.
Everything else on the starter was equally good as was the swordfish main course and desserts that followed.
‘Oh my God that was so good, do we need to book for tomorrow? I’ve had half a bottle of wine! Don’t under any circumstances let me pick up my knitting. I need to go straight to sleep,’ said Madam in one long stream without pausing for breath.
There goes solicitation as well I thought.
Pictures from the trip can be found here