Malta, baby!

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Well I guess I can admit it publicly - I celebrated my 40th birthday recently. Since this is supposed to be one of life’s big milestones (hasn’t felt like it!), we decided to celebrate in grand style. Kathleen planned a long-weekend trip to Malta for us. Kathleen had brought a group of students to Malta a couple of years ago, so had a good idea of where to go and what to see.

We flew out of Dublin airport on Saturday morning at the ungodly hour of 7:00AM via Ryanair. They’re cheap, but that’s all you can say for them. That did get us into Malta by 11:00 local time though, so we got most of the day Saturday to play. We got off the plane and were greeted by sunshine and temperatures in the 60s, a nice change from the cold, rainy Dublin we’d just left.

We hopped a bus from the airport into Valletta, and got our first indication of what an economical trip this would turn out to be - bus fare from the airport to Valletta, a distance of about 6 miles, was €0.47 per person! (Malta converted to the euro on January 1 this year.) Quite a change from Dublin. It would seem one of the ways Malta keeps their bus fares low is by keeping buses in service, well, forever. We saw all kinds of buses dating from the 1950s to present-day. I got the impression (since confirmed) that the individual drivers owned their own buses, as we saw a wide variety of cleanliness levels and upkeep on the buses. It was rare to see a bus with a door though. The drivers were still struggling with the switch-over to the euro, and would often drive down the street while still counting change to passengers out of a coffee can in their lap. At one point we even saw a driver talking on his cell phone with one hand while counting out change, shifting and driving with the other.

When we got into Valletta, we spent most of the afternoon wandering the ancient capital city. This walled city was founded in 1566. The architecture is kind of an interesting mix of southern-European and northern-Africa influences. Most of the construction is limestone block, as the island is made up of mostly limestone. We especially enjoyed walking along the Mediterranean basking in the warm sunshine. And, as Kathleen had predicted, I found a lot of photo opportunities. Before the weekend was over we would shoot something in the neighborhood of 500 pictures - thank god for digital! We grabbed some pastizis for lunch from a street vendor, kind of a croissant-type crust with cheese and/or other ingredients baked in. A pair set us back a whole €0.20.

Late Saturday afternoon we hopped a bus to St. George’s Bay where our seaside hotel was located. We checked in and managed to fit in a quick nap (did I mention we left for the airport before 5:00AM?). Then it was off to wander the neighborhood. We walked for a couple of miles along the beautiful sea-front promenade, still in short sleeves and no coat! Finally it was time to eat, so we found a nice little Italian place where we could sit out on the deck overlooking St. Julians Bay. We were joined during dinner by a constant stream of cats begging for food. Malta is absolutely overrun by stray cats, so of course Kathleen was in heaven.

Sunday morning we were up and out early to take full advantage of the day. We started with a huge breakfast buffet at the hotel, then boarded a bus for Valletta. We spent a couple of hours wandering the Sunday market in Valletta, seeing beautiful handmade lace, lots of live birds for sale, more junk than you could shake a stick at, and the biggest collection of pirated CDs and DVDs I’d ever seen.

By late morning it was time to hop another bus to Cirkewwa on the north side of the island to hop a ferry to Gozo. As my special birthday treat, Kathleen had arranged for us to rent scooters to spend the day tooling around on Gozo, even though she’d never ridden before. You can see where this is headed, right? Anyway, Gozo was just a 20-minute ferry ride away. The scooter rental folks met us at the ferry dock with two incredibly well-worn scooters. A quick lesson, fill out some paperwork (fully-insured, woohoo!), and we were turned loose. Helmets fully adjusted to cover our frontal lobes, we set off up the hill. Having spent all day Saturday on the urban-feeling coast of Malta, Sunday would be spent on the much more rural Gozo, an island about 8 miles long and half as wide.

We set off first for Xlendi, a small seaside town. We quickly discovered that Malta has even fewer road signs than Ireland, so we spent most of the day navigating by guess, and going down a lot of wrong roads. The drive to Xlendi was mostly on well-paved roads though, so it was a good start to the day for those of us not feeling so confident on the scooter (ahem). We stopped in Xlendi for a soda and ice-cream cone, once again sitting by the sea and enjoying the sunny skies and warm temps.

From Xlendi we set out in search of the Azure Window, a spectacular cliff formation. We wandered some of the roughest roads we’d see all day in several mistaken attempts to get there, finally spotting the right road a mile away across some pretty rough terrain. Our scooters weren’t up for that, so it was back up the road to find the right road. Along the way we saw one of the biggest limestone quarries I’ve ever seen, with perfectly-vertical chiseled walls and huge blocks of limestone covering the bottom of the quarry.

We finally found our way to the Azure Window, finally catching up to a huge line of traffic also headed there. With small scooters, parking was of course no problem, and we set off to explore the area on foot. Did I mention the weather was perfect? This was especially nice as we’d gotten an email from our friend Mark at the start of our day telling us that the temperature back home in Wisconsin was -15F.

Back onto the scooters, we started the long uphill climb away from the sea, mixed in with a steady stream of cars also leaving the Azure Window. This road was more typical of the roads on Gozo, kind of paved but full of potholes and covered with loose gravel. I was leading up the hill and spotted a huge pothole in time to avoid it. Kathleen, about 100 yards behind me, also spotted it, but not in time to avoid it. I looked in my mirror just in time to see her lose control and fly over the handlebars of the bike. I quickly stopped and turned around, but by the time I got back to her she was already on her feet and picking up her scooter, waving traffic past her. She was shaken, of course, and had a nice case of road rash on her arm, shoulder and leg. Like a trooper though, she was right back onto the bike (also slightly damaged) and away we went. We headed up the road to Gharb where we could pull off and walk around a bit to give Kathleen a chance to steady her nerves.

With the afternoon sliding by, we headed for Victoria. We parked the bikes and walked around the Citadel, a beautiful walled city fortified over 400 years ago. It was late enough in the afternoon that the light was perfect for photos, especially with all the limestone buildings. We spent a little time exploring there, then it was time to head for Mgarr harbor in the fading light. We dropped off the scooters and boarded the ferry back to Malta. We caught a bus back to the hotel, but ended up in a traffic jam for over an hour as most of the population of Malta tried to drive the same road. Heading back to the hotel, a sore Kathleen decided she wanted a comfort-food meal of risotto to end the day. After checking several Italian restaurants we found one with risotto on the menu. I opted to go for their set menu, and ended up having a 4-course meal that was one of the best Italian meals I’ve ever eaten. I was stuffed full halfway through the meal but just couldn’t stop eating. Kathleen tucked into an enormous bowl of risotto and ended up in the same shape. Once again reminding us that we weren’t in Dublin, this monster meal, with drinks, ended up costing us around €28!

Monday morning we had a bit of a lie-in, ate breakfast at the hotel then boarded a bus for the Ta’ Qali crafts village. Located on the site of a World War II airfield, the village is comprised of a series of quonset huts, each housing a different craftsperson or company. We got to see glassblowers, silversmiths, ceramics workers and woodworkers all in action. The setting was pretty rough, but the craftsmanship on display was pretty impressive.

Next up was a stop at the Malta Aviation Museum where we learned a lot about Malta’s central role in World War II. The museum has a great collection, and is small enough that you can get up close and personal with a lot of the planes on display. It was amazing to read that Malta was subject to over 3,300 air-raids during World War II, one of the most-heavily bombed targets of the war.

Onto the bus again, our next stop was Mdina, the old capital of Malta. This city has a history going back over 6,000 years. The architecture and feel of this place was just unbelievable. It was very quiet this day, so we often found ourselves walking down these ancient streets all by ourselves. Once again I was shooting pictures non-stop. After lunch in Mdina, we caught a bus back to Sliema to wind down the day exploring this part of the city. We wandered and did a bit of shopping, then found our way to Manoel Island and checked out the boatyards as the sun went down and the moon came up.

We headed back to the hotel early in the evening so we could take advantage of the pool and hot tub to soak our weary bodies. After, we went out to find a place to eat. We decided we were in the mood for Indian food, but weren’t able to find an Indian restaurant. So we hopped a bus with the plan to ride until we spotted one. Kathleen’s eagle eye picked one out after about 20 minutes, so we got off at the next stop. We found the restaurant open but empty, and sat down for one of the best Indian meals we’d ever had. Through the evening we had a long chat with the owner, an Indian gentleman who’d moved to Malta 27 years ago to open his own restaurant. As we’ve often found, conversation ranged across a wide variety of topics, but the American elections were a big interest. This evening, and really this whole trip, was one of those “Can you believe this is our life?” moments!

Tuesday we were able to have another brief lie-in before getting up and boarding another pair of buses to the airport. Onto the plane for an uneventful trip home, though our 3-hour flight was lengthened by a whole hour due to heavy headwinds. We arrived back to a Dublin that was cold and rainy, just like we left it. That evening we caught a bus to meet some friends in Dublin and experienced huge culture shock as the bus was new, had a door, and the driver didn’t count change and talk on the phone while he drove.

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