David and Ginna Zoellner love to travel. We live in Nice, France, half the year; the other half we live near Chicago, Illinois. We do 'home-exchanges' to explore other areas as well as taking normal trips. We'd like to share some of our experiences with you.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Two Weeks in Malta

Auberge de Castille
Marsaxlokk waterfront

The local transportation

Ginna at Hagar Qim Temples

We really loved Malta when we were there for one day on a cruise a year ago. This year we decided to stay for two weeks and planned our stay en route from Evanston to Nice, our winter home. The weather was perfect, with only a bit of rain and that fell at night. We stayed in a 2 BR, 2 BA rental right on the Grand Harbor in Birgu (Vittoriosa) across from Valletta. We never tired of the view, watching cruise ships come in each morning and leave each night and all the freighters coming and going.

But we were there for more than a beautiful view. We really wanted to see the ancient archeological finds, structures built as long as 6000 years ago. The first settlers, 5600 BC, were farmers from Sicily. Then, around 4000 BC an unknown group came and started creating temples and burial grounds. We visited Hagar Qim, with its 20 ton megalith, and Mnajdra Temples in their magnificent site overlooking the sea; the Mnajdra are aligned with the solstice. We visited the Tarxien Temples, one of the newer sites, only about 4500 years old. The same day we visited the nearby Hypogeum, probably Malta's most famous site, a three-level underground necropolis where they also held religious rites - there are still ochre spiral decorations on the ceilings. (No photos allowed). It's located in the town of Paola and was discovered as they were building in the city. At the Hypogeum we met a fellow American, Molly Poiset, and she drove us home and we all went to a local place, del Borgo, for wine and a cheese platter. But the oldest temples are on the island of Gozo, Ggantija, so named for the giants who were thought to have built the complex; this is the oldest man-made structure on earth, about 1000 years older than Egyptian pyramids. It's not in great shape but it awe-inspiring to view.

Were we sick of these ancient sites? Not at all and we went to two excellent museums, one in Valletta and one on Gozo to see the artifacts that were recovered from the sites. We were enchanted by the many figures of obese females, mostly without heads, supposed to be fertility goddesses. Also at the museums were artifacts from the Roman, Phoenician, and Medieval times.
In the 1500's, the Knights of St. John were expelled from Rhodes and were given the islands of Malta by the King of Spain. The capital of Malta at that time was the Phoenician-founded city of Mdina but the sea-faring Knights prefered to be by the sea and settled in Birgu, a small village on the Grand Harbor. They built palaces for their Inquisitor, the various "langues" (nationalities) of Knights, a Treasury, and so forth. But in 1565 they were attacked again by their great enemies, Suleyman and the Ottoman Empire; they repulsed this Great Siege and then proceeded to build an even finer city, Valletta, with greater fortifications, across the Grand Harbor. The Grand Master's Palace and all the auberges for the "langues" are magnificent, especially the Auberge de Castille. And the whole city is of a piece - there are no intruding modern buildings. Even the McDonald's is in an old palace. And there is the deceptively plain St. John's Co-Cathedral with its interior Baroque decoration, overseen by Mattia Preti, and which holds the largest Caravaggio produced, "The Beheading of John the Baptist".

One day we went up to Mdina, "The Silent City" and "The Noble City". Here is the original Cathedral of St. Paul; when the Knights built the new cathedral in Valletta, they were made "Co-cathedrals". The Cathedral here is equally impressive with beautiful polychrome inlaid marble tombstones covering the floor. The town is also picturesque, although hardly a "Silent City" with all the tourists who flock here. Outside the walls of Mdina is the Domus Romana, with its mosaic floors, statues, and glass from Roman ruins.

All over Malta are sites that remind us that St. Paul was shipwrecked near here and spent several months on the island. In Valletta there's the Church dedicated to the shipwreck; in Mdina there are catacombs, and the Cathedral dedicated to him. There's St. Paul's Bay, where he came ashore. Paul helped cure the father of the Roman magistrate of a fever and the magistrate and many islanders became Christian. It is still a very Catholic country: the parliament was debating, while we were there, whether to accept divorce or not!

We spent two days on Gozo. We arrived fairly early in the morning, the first day and walked up the steep hill in Mgarr, where the ferry landed, to The Grand Hotel where we booked a room for that night. They kindly let us check in right away and then arranged for the next HOHO bus to pick us up at the door. We rode the bus to Ggantija for our first "hop off"; then we boarded the next bus to Victoria, the capital of the island. We walked around the "Il Borgo" section of the city with its narrow winding passageways. In that area we found the charming restaurant Il Panzier; they weren't sure they could take us on this Sunday but finally did let us in after we promised to order something simple. Everything is cooked to order. From our table we could watch Alessandra and Valentino (husband and much-younger wife) working away. We shared an antipasto misto for a starter: about seven different little bowls of vegetables, each cooked in a different way - cauliflower, peppers, eggplant, beans, and so on. For a main course we each had a pasta, both delicious. For dessert we ordered figs which were served with pistachios, perhaps a bit plain for our tastes. But we loved sitting on the terrace and we loved the family and we arranged to come back the next day for another lunch!

We rode the HOHO around the rest of the island back to Mgarr where we got back to our hotel. We certainly didn't need any dinner that night! It was early to bed and then up early for the huge buffet breakfast that was included in the price - meats, cheeses, salads, eggs, bacon, sausages, cereals, fruits, breads, jams: everything you could think of. Then we took the free bus from the hotel back up to Victoria where we explored the Citadel and the fine archeological museum there and Basilica St. George. Then it was time for our second meal at Il Panzier - we were welcomed back like old friends! Since we'd had such a huge breakfast, we didn't need a huge lunch, so we skipped the entree and just had the main course - an asparagus Napoleon for me and baked scallops for David - and tiramisu for dessert. Again, wonderful! I dread the thought that we might never get there again. Then it was time to take the bus back to Mgarr and get the ferry back to Malta and the bus to Birgu and "home".

One day we took the bus to the fishing village of Marsaxlokk, the town where the Turks arrived during the Great Siege. We'd read that it was a good place to find souvenirs but we didn't really see anything. But it was a great place to have fresh fish along the sea, with the colorfully painted boats, many with a "good luck eye" painted on the bow, bobbing in the harbor. We chose the Cafe de Paris and had lampuka, the local fish that is something like mahi mahi, and King Prawns. The wine came in the smallest glasses ever but we kept ordering - I think each glass was one euro! The sun was shining and we sat under an umbrella and whiled away several hours.

Other days we visited various sites/sights around Valletta and Birgu. We loved the Teatru Manoel, the 3rd oldest theater in Europe, which was built by the Knights and where they played the parts with castrati playing the female roles. We finally got to see the Grand Master's Palace which was closed last year when we were here. We enjoyed the Barracca Gardens with the great views of the Grand Harbor and Birgu opposite. And we enjoyed many wonderful meals, trying the local Gozo cheese, local sausage, bragioli (beef rolls with stuffing which my mother-in-law used to make), lots of fresh fish and many salads, sitting in the sun. We met up with Linda and John Cordina, whom we had met last year in the Piemonte when we were all up there truffle hunting; they own one of the famous restaurants in Valletta, Caffe Cordina, which has been in John's family since 1837. We stopped there several times for afternoon gelato! Another day we took the bus out to the Classic Car Museum near St. Paul's Bay.

Our favorite place was del Borgo, the place in Birgu where we went four times. It was great whether for a full meal or a snack or for dessert. For our last meal we went to De Robertis on the top floor terrace of the Castille Hotel in Valletta with its views of the Grand Harbor. We had a wonderful meal with Maltese antipasto misto and then pasta. We were too full for dessert!

Traveling around Malta is an adventure. Almost all buses leave from the Valletta station, a huge parking lot with over 100 buses, arranged in no apparent order. Each bus, many of which date from the 1950's, is decorated by its driver with family photos, religious symbols and sayings, and so on. The drivers must have the right-of-way since all they do is blast the horn and keep going. Anybody in the way better just get out of the way! And of course they drive on the "wrong" side of the street.

It's a great place to visit and two weeks is plenty to see everything. Longer would be nice to have more time to relax, have picnics, and just enjoy the wonderful weather!