Northern Malta, Mosta, and Naxxar

http://picasaweb.google.com/kyotesue/December12NorthernMalta#
We woke up in the middle of the night again, listening to the sounds of the Mediterranean and talked for a couple of hours, too wound up and excited to sleep, and maybe still on US time as well. Finally we fell back to sleep, but woke up just in time to dress for breakfast and leave for our Northern Malta Tour with the group by 8:45.

The day was truly beautiful, sunny and clear, not too warm. The big tour bus is such a cliché, but it still is a good way to see a lot of a country in the first days of unfamiliarity. We traveled to the northern part of the island, driving north through St Julian and other coastal towns to go to the Sanctuary of Our Lady at St Paul’s beach in Mellieha. The sanctuary has been a holy place long before Paul and Luke were there, a place where the local people worshipped their goddesses before Paul christianized Malta. St Paul healed a Roman official when he first arrived to preach Christianity on the island in 60 AD. He was actually shipwrecked on this beach and was stranded in Malta for 6 months! The chapel is carved from a limestone cave and the local people have pilgrimaged there for centuries honoring “Our Lady”. It is always interesting to follow the history of these cultures as they move from their feminine face of God to accepting the western version of God as a male figure, yet keeping the Virgin and Our Lady so dear to their hearts. The presence of the Virgin in Malta is everywhere, and the people love her and honor her, and the many images of Mother and Child are lovely. The grotto was beautiful, with a restored painting of the Virgin holding Jesus in her right arm instead of her left as is the usual tradition in these kinds of paintings, and seemed to be of great significance artistically. The painting was supposedly done in the 1st century, but later studies have placed it somewhere aroune 1000 AD.

Back to the bus to continue through the countryside to Mosta, where we visited the cathedral hit by a bomb during WWII. Miraculously, the bomb landed in the center of the sanctuary during a mass but didn’t explode. The church was newer than most and very ornate. There is a museum in the church where the unexploded bomb is displayed. I would imagine it’s been deactivated somehow, but it looked fairly ominous.

Back on the bus to the town of Naxxar where we toured the Palace Paridisio and gardens, a dramatic feat of Victorian and Rococo style, very ornate and heavy and a bit overwhelming. The palace cat was a treat, however, and she even came down to join us for a light “snack” in the cafe which was as big as any lunch we have had so far, including dessert!

The late afternoon trip back to the hotel was through very heavy traffic into Sliema, which made us both very glad we weren’t driving. It’s a little bit disconcerting to be one of “them” high up on the tour bus overlooking life going on so far below. Riding along the narrow roads we could see life happening on the roofs, where the water is stored in big cisterns and delivered to the houses by gravity. A woman hanging clothes in the brilliant cool light, looked down on our bus and waved at us.

After returning to the hotel, we napped a bit and then went to the Maltese language lecture at 4:45. English and Maltese are both official languages in Malta, but Maltese is unique in that it is somewhat of a mixture of several languages of the various countries that have occupied Malta. It is the only Semitic tongue officially written in the Latin alphabet, with 30 letters , which makes it a bit easier to read as well. The most interesting fact about Maltese is that it was a spoken language, and thought to be common, spoken only by the lower class, and never was a written language, since the higher born Maltese people tried to emulate the English, and encouraged their children to speak English. Only since the 1970’s have the Maltese people taken back their pride in their langauge, and developed it as a written language.

Malta was settled first by the Phoenicians, followed by the Carthiginians, the Arabs, and in 1530 by the Knights of St John. The history of the Knights of St John is incredible, and too complex to write about here, but they came from several European countries, and most of their languages left an influence on the Maltese language, but to me it still sounds like a soft sweet mixture of Hebrew and Arabic, with Italian overtones. I loved this language, love the intonation, and really enjoyed speaking it as much as possible.

After the lecture, neither of us could drum up the energy to go out and eat supper so we just rested, ate nuts and yogurt, and drank our wine from the local Tower Supermarket and went early to sleep to prepare for the next day of adventures.

First explorations

http://picasaweb.google.com/kyotesue/December11ValettaAndTheThreeCities#

This morning we wakened to fresh cool somewhat humid air. The sea was crashing against the sea wall and was a dark Prussian blue with that dark dark line between the sea and the sky. Sailboats are out in the morning in waves so high the big boats would disappear into the swells.

We ate a buffet breakfast at the Four Seasons here in the hotel before we left for our morning orientation meeting with Stephan, our tour guide. Breakfast was certainly not memorable, and as we were to discover, Maltese food in general wasn’t that great. The English influence here is very strong, with very little spice and things like broiled tomatoes, some rather tasteless sausages, and mushy dry potatoes. After breakfast, we went to the Hong Kong bank across the street to try to change money but I only managed to change ‘3’ $20 bills because the window ran out of money, and Mo had to use the cash machine. Exchange is $2.86 so we are estimating about 3 bucks US per Maltese LIRA as an average for our stay.

After the group orientation meeting we walked down to the “strand” for a light lunch of bruschetta and cappuccino at Cafe Tigne at a sidewalk table. The Strand was the main way to see the busy Maltese city life up close, with many people walking and talking and shopping. Most noticeable were the women’s shoes. Everyone seems to have taken on the Italian way of dressing, with Italian television shows now available in Malta, and very high very pointy stilettos are the shoe of choice for most women. Mo and I still wonder what in the world they did with their toes in these shoes! The cappuccino was good and the energy of the strand was high as usual, with lots of conversation and happy people all in a rush.

In the afternoon we joined an included tour for our group of the Three Cities, and to see a video movie called the “Malta Experience” in Valetta. The history of the heroism and trials of the Maltese people during world war 2 was enlightening. The history of the Grand Harbour and how it affected so many challengers to Malta was a theme that was repeated throughout our stay here, and began with this informative show.

Later, the bus toured around the Grand Harbor to Vittoriosa and we walked through old limestone buildings where people lived underground during WWII. Then more town walking and a visit o the Maritime Museum. For me, since this was my first trip to Europe, it was an incredible thrill to be walking these narrow winding streets, with uneven stone pavings, a thrill to be somewhere so completely new to me.

After the horrendous destruction of the bombings in WWII the local people left the old town, and eventually public housing replaced the grand houses that used to be here. Only recently have people started to return and fix the town up a bit as young families establish the old neighborhoods into something workable for this time.

As the day drew to a close, the sunset was truly breathtaking with domes and steeples silhouetted against the sky. In the dark we returned to the hotel to regroup and go back down to the Strand for dinner at Newman’s Place and conversation with the owner and John Rossi, a fellow traveler from Grand Circle. Stopped in at an Internet Café on the way home to check email and we were very happy to be in our own room by 9pm. The hotel room is completely comfortable, with an amazing view of the ocean looking north west, and the setting sun in the early evening. The hotel is even surrounded by a moat, now how European is that!