Hello again and, as always a very brief word of explanation. This entry, should you have alighted on it by accident, is one of a series so I suggest you scroll back to the 13th February where the whole thing starts and it may all make a little sense but then again it may not!
After my last entry on the 22nd of the month, the 23rd yields me a mere three images and these saved images are my default position for starting to write. Two of these were of the plug of my computer and the third was of the fairly abysmal weather which had dogged me since my arrival. I may as well explain the plug images which were taken to illustrate a practical point on another travel site I used to write for. The 13 amp square pin “British” plug, which is not overly common worldwide is still used here but other variants of two pin plugs are also in use so here is a practical tip for you if you go to Malta (recommended), don’t forget your universal adaptor!
Straight then to the 24th and again a fairly meagre day of things to report. Another rubbish day on the weather front, indeed the only fronts that seemed to be crossing the country were cold, wet and with very closely packed isobars i.e. very windy. Seemed like another day in Dick’s Bar was called for and why not? For all the reasons I shall not bore you with again it was as good a plan as any and apart from the excellent meal shown (I know, I just keep posting images of lovely things with chips / fries but why not?) I was reading one of the local newspapers, which I love to do. Even in countries where I do not speak more than a tiny smattering of the language, I can generally associate images with text and usually manage to learn a bit of vocab. that way. It is the same with watching TV news with subtitles. However, I quickly collapsed in my desire to learn Maltese as English is so widely spoken, there was always a local English language paper available and I was having my usual peruse when I came upon a full page article (pictured) that actually made me chuckle vaguely audibly (no, I do not LOL!) which was a report from the restaurant critic about the pizza house which had just opened upstairs from Dick’s, a place called Margo’s and which rather arrogantly claimed to serve the best pizzas in the world. I have mentioned it before here. This is the place where you can spend €1800 (that is not a typo, that is one thousand eight hundred Euros) on a single pizza and they do not even take credit cards! To say that the critic was less than impressed would be an understatement along the lines of saying that Mother Theresa wasn’t a bad sort really. The critic ripped the place to pieces. I mean no disrespect whatsoever with the Mother Theresa comment lest anyone take offence, a few more like her in the world and we might all be a lot better off.
Apart from that, nothing else happened apart from me half freezing to death on the way home but I did just like that walk along the front with the lights over the harbour, even though I could have jumped a taxi or bus easily enough. I took to my bed hoping for finer weather on the morrow to allow me a bit more exploration.
That turned out to be something of a forlorn hope and the 25th came around pretty miserable although not actually raining which was a blessing. It was just saving that up to hit me with later as the image shows! I had a bit of a wander about, took a few random images and generally cursed the weather although it was not a huge issue, more of an inconvenience really. My images indicate there was another visit to my “tame” kebab shop just up the road from home where they were getting quite used to me and friendly but that should have been no surprise. These guys were not native Maltese (Turkish, I believe) but the island in general just seems to engender a fairly laid back sociable feel.
With a tummy full of a (very small as I eat like a bird) kebab, planxty was off to bed and by now just hoping for fairly light rain the next day never mind any sort of sunshine. Please don’t misunderstand, the fault was entirely mine for not checking. I had stupidly worked out in my head that anywhere this far South must be at least bright this time of year but a Maltese acquaintance told me I had picked exactly the worst time of the year to visit. Nice one, planxty! As it turned out, it really didn’t matter to any degree as I just indulged myself in my usual pastimes of seeing a few of the tourist sites as circumstances allowed, meeting a lot of lovely people and making a few friends. How bad can it be?
On now to the 26th and my daily morning check of the back garden in lieu of a weather report showed that things were looking up, as indeed I was to a lovely bright morning. I guessed it wasn’t going to be overly warm and so wrapped up well and determined to go back to Rabat / Mdina. If you have read my previous entries you will know that Mdina was the old fortified Crusader town and the surrounding area was known as Rabat. I had spent a lot of time in the latter and do not regret a second of it as it was fascinating but I knew there was still a lot more to see behind the walls. Out came my “go anywhere” buspass and two comfortable bus rides took me back to a place where I had a head start as I knew the geography a bit. I do like Maltese buses.
There I was back in Mdina on a reasonably pleasant if not terribly warm day which promised to produce some decent images and so what next? I shall include a few of the images here just to give you a general sense of the place and it really is no surprise that so many tourists come here. I have to say I would not fancy it on mid-August with almost 40 degree heat and teeming with tour parties but on this day it was a joy.
Particularly interesting amongst these images are a few I thought I might point out above. The first is the sign for the old Jewish Silk Market which is long gone and with the sign rendered in either Hebrew or Yiddish, I am afraid I do not know the difference. The second is the long since sealed door of the Greek bordello with the third showing the sign denoting where it was. I was interested to see some apparently recent Greek graffiti on the door, presumably put there by some young yobs on a drunken holiday who had lost their way to the nightclub. Why do people do this in such a beautiful place? I do not write this to make the entry a salacious piece by referring to a brothel but merely to indicate what a multi-national crossroads Malta was and indeed still is.
Wandering about in my usual totally random style, I came upon the Chapel of St. Agatha. Obviously, I knew the name (not as a Saint) which I associated with P.G Wodehouse novels etc., as in, “This is great–Aunt Agatha”. For me it was just a very old-fashioned name in my home country. Let’s have a look first and then I shall get into my inevitable research!
The first thing I needed to find out was who St. Agatha was. A quick look online and, frankly, it does not make for pleasant reading. Look it up for yourself if you wish. When you have, I then decided to look up the church named for her (she apparently died rather horribly in 251AD) and I found there had been a church built there about 1410 but was pretty well wiped out in the massive earthquake of 1693. Malta lies on a fault line and gets a lot of this horror. The church was rebuilt but let us go back a little and look at the events of 1551, a year I do not think I have mentioned yet.
I know I have spoken of the Grand Siege of 1656 before but in what may have been a “recce” mission for it, the Ottoman Turks and associated allies, laid siege to the island and specifically Mdina, then called Notabile (see my earlier post about the stunning former casino). It is alleged that some nun in a local convent had had a vision from St. Agatha telling her that if she got all the people, both military and civilian, to attend mass in the church and then parade around the town carrying their banners and religious relics then all would be well. They did so and the Turks went away.
Personally, I can see a host of alternative military and logistical reasons why the besieging force may have disengaged but that is the tale that still holds currency here. Hence, amongst other reasons, although Agatha never visited Malta as far as I can see, having died at about age 20 or 21 in Sicily where she was born, she is now one of the patron saints of Malta.
The building itself is relatively small and consequently quite intimate. Despite it’s minor dimensions it was still decked out in full finery as you can see and I shall not bore you with my thinking on this again but it is definitely worth a visit if it is open (it keeps somewhat irregular hours).
I read that during the last war the chapel gave sanctuary as a home for two refugee families, presumably bombed out by the Germans and Italians and after the war the place fell into somewhat a state of disrepair. I am pleased to see that the building offered it’s original purpose as a place of succour to those in need in the dark days of Axis oppression and also that the Maltese people saw fit to restore it later when opportunity allowed. Somehow it was just yet another reminder of the indomitable spirit of these people in the face of apparently unbeatable aggression. I did rather like it here and found the altar particularly pleasing although nowhere nearly as grand as others I saw on the island.
If you want to check up on the logistics, here is an official website with all the details.
Yet again, I was just wandering and took myself to the walls at the “back” of the town (i.e. furthest away from the main gate) as I had done on my first visit and the views are stunning over the local countryside and all the way to the sea. That really is worth doing.
Unusually for me,even though it was well past “beer o’clock”, I fancied a coffee and picked, as always completely at random, the Old Priory Cafe.
Honestly, I thought I had walked into another Museum by accident but I was really in a cafe slightly oddly decked out with a plasma TV (thankfully turned off), modern, minimalist furniture all sitting amongst some tremendous looking oil paintings although I am certainly no judge. Top all this off with a roof that would not have disgraced a Christian church anywhere in the world, and which I nearly got a crick in my neck looking at, and it was the most wonderful setting for a very decent coffee.
OK, so I was being vaguely civilised and had not just retreated to the first bar so what to see next? Well, if the relatively minor Chapel of St. Agatha had been so rewarding then surely the Cathedral had to be worth a look and so it was to prove. After a few more images of the utterly charming alleyways and little curios of Mdina as depicted above, off I went. It is not difficult to find as it can be seen from just about anywhere within the walls.
On a technical note, you cannot buy tickets to the Cathedral at the Cathedral but only at the Museum although that is no problem as it is only round the corner. In truth, in a town the size of Mdina everything is just round the corner from everything else. You cannot buy a ticket just for the Cathedral, it is a joint ticket for it and the Museum but it is worth doing. I will not bother you with out of date prices and opening times but the website here gives all the logistical details.
In I went and it was just deja vu (have you heard that before?) as I was totally entranced by the place. My arguments against organised religion are well-rehearsed here and do not need repeating but I was literally looking round like some kind of rural bumpkin who had never been in a grand church before, it was magnificent. I was to find out some days later that it is a mere shadow of the Co-Cathedral in Valletta in terms of grandeur and yet here I was gawping at everything. Certainly, I have been in much larger, much more impressive Cathedrals than this but it was just that feeling again. I know that places like this were designed to cow people into subservience and giving money / tithes or whatever and I have to say they must have succeeded impressively. If it gets me this way, think what it must have done to an illiterate 17th century Maltese farmer brought up in fear of “eternal damnation”.
I have tried to analyse this for years and the best I can come up with is that it is not the religious aspect of the buildings that get me but rather the sense of history, which is a passion of mine. You cannot miss the history here as you literally walk on it wherever you go with the entire floor being constructed of the tombs of the “great and the good”, many of them Knights of the Hospittalers. Back again to another theme of mine about learning and I read only yesterday (albeit in a historical novel so I am unsure of the provenance) that the reason “important” people wanted to be buried in the place of worship and as close to the altar as their station and funds allowed was that there were usually relics of the Saints on or near the altar and on the day of judgement when the faithful will ascend to Heaven they will be somehow dragged upwards more swiftly on a holy “wind” as the Saints will be resurrected first. I shall leave you to make your own mind up about that one but it just reinforced to me about never ceasing to learn.
I shall, as always, let my pretty poor images stand in place of my totally inadequate words although I would draw your attention to a few of the images above and offer an observation, not my own I am sorry to say and we are always just a fraction away from a digression when I get going here so you might as well have another one but hopefully the above images will help to make sense of this.
In the sixth form at my school we had a Friday afternoon we all had to attend a “lecture”, normally from an outside and generally terribly boring speaker. We would do anything to get out of it but one particular Friday I couldn’t and our extremely affable Vice Principal, Mr. Fred Jeffrey(s?) took to the stage armed with an old fashioned slide projector. No “Death by Powerpoint” or laser pens in those days and off he went on an exploration of English architecture, backed mostly by his own monochrome images which probably dated to the 60’s or even earlier (this was ’77 or ’78). We all tried to sleep without being seen or dreamed about our potential exploits on the sporting field the next day or even our potentially “unsporting” exploits in the Botanic Inn pub that night with the young lady of our current affection.
At some point I happened to glance up at the rippled and not particularly good screen to see what appeared to me as the rather incongruous sight of a row of the upper storeys of quite wonderful buildings. Then he slid in the next frame to reveal street level and the standard British High Street look of the time, BHS, House of Fraser, the odd Wimpy bar and so on. He revealed the two images were taken from exactly the same spot at the same time and something just clicked in my bored, testosterone riddled brain. It was Oxford Street in London and with a few sad exceptions it is still much the case today over 40 years on.
No, I didn’t go walking about staring at skylines that afternoon (I had to get home and clean up for my evening out) but it is a concept I have held to ever since. I am not for one minute suggesting you walk about like these idiots taking selfies and walking into lamp-posts or over high cliffs or into the path of an oncoming bus but wherever you are, either indoors or outdoors, just stop somewhere safe and have a look up. You might just be surprised what you see. Dear old Fred was nearing retirement at the time of this story and if he is still alive, which I sincerely hope is the case, he must be a centenarian now or if not then damn near one. I know he had a wonderful career in education and instilling this small piece of knowledge into my unreceptive skull must rank fairly low in his list of achievements but I thank him for it nonetheless.
It has happened again, hasn’t it? What started off as what I thought was going to be a fairly short entry has turned into another complete rambling saga. In truth, I quite enjoy it as I generally sit up all night writing this stuff due to my somewhat obscure sleep patterns, if indeed there is any pattern, rhyme or reason to how and when I sleep. If it was a knitting pattern rather than a sleep pattern I would have by now cast on and knitted and purled myself towards a lovely baby cardigan that would suit an infant octopus as it would have so many arms in it! Perhaps my choice of website name is starting to make sense to you now so let’s get back to Malta which is what you are presumably here to read about.
With my head still full of the wonderful cathedral and vague notions of other things to see I headed back out into what was actually becoming a pretty passable day weatherwise. Again, there are a few more images above to give you an idea. I like to write chronologically when I can and do not cherrypick the “best” (a very relative term given my equipment and minimal skills) images for the top of the page. If the eagle-eyed amongst you spot that I have revisited the same alleyway, that is entirely plausible. I was completely lost, in the best possible way, and the back alleys of Mdina are fairly homogeneous and labyrinthine. How much would I love to use either of those words in a game of Scrabble! Less Scrabble friendly adjectives would have to include atmospheric, beautiful, historic and charming.
I would not suggest that you do such a thing but if you visit Mdina and do not enter a single building then your day would not have been a waste of time. Just to wander these tiny backstreets and wonder at the old names (Magazine Street for example, obviously where they kept the ordnance and not named for a glossy coffee-table publication), look at the little religious curios that seem to adorn every building and just drink in the centuries you would have had a wonderful day.
Of course, the great thing for the geographically challenged is that you cannot get lost! If you go too far away from the centre you come to what can only be described as a bloody huge wall (please excuse my vulgarity) with a totally suicidal drop down the other side so you know to go back. The cathedral is visible from just about anywhere and it is easy to find the gate from there. Mdina is really one of the great places to explore freely as the topography and architecture dictate that you can go anywhere you want and you will not go far wrong. It is a bit like Disneyland without Mickey and Minnie but you do not need a map and the best thing of all is that it is completely real, not dreamt up by some “imagineer” in Hollywood.
My next “port of call” was the Mdina Experience and the name should have told me everything as anything including the word “experience” in it’s promotion is usually rubbish although I know it is almost obligatory amongst marketeers these days. It describes itself as an “audio visual spectacular” although that possibly got lost in translation as spectacular it was not. I should have trusted my gut, as I usually do. It was, indeed, rubbish comprising of a series of tableaux with little or nothing in the way of actual artefacts. I cannot remember how much I paid and I refuse to endorse such a blatant ripoff by attaching a link here but please do yourself a favour and avoid this place like the horrible Plague of Malta of 1813. Now, that is worth a bit of your time to read up on. OK, I had been ripped off, I was not the first and I am sure not the last but it was not going to stop me on what was turning out to be another such brilliant and fascinating day so I just kept walking as is my way. The next “tourist trap” I came across was the “Medieval Times”. I really should have known better and I have not even the excuse of being drunk (maybe I should have been!). Another set of poorly rendered tableaux which the late Mme. Tussaud would probably have melted down for candles. Utter rubbish and again I exhort the reader to avoid this place and will not include details.
So, I had been gulled twice by shysters playing on the immense history of this walled town. Was I depressed by this? Yes. I was depressed by my own stupidity but how can you know? Was I depressed by my return visit to Mdina? Emphatically no. No visitor to Malta should miss this place, it is phenomenal and I have no idea how it must look now after all the work the EU funded. I reckon the old moat is a thing of beauty now (six years after I visited) and the town itself needed little in the way of beautifying but I am sure that has been done as well. It was a day very well spent and remains, after some years, one of my happiest “lunatic wandering” memories. Really this place is a gem set atop (literally) a crown in the Med. and you really should go if you can.
The day was wearing on and I was just about “touristed out” and so a beer was inevitably called for but I thought that getting back to Valletta was probably a good idea even though I knew the buses ran late enough. I managed to get a couple of images of the outer walls of Mdina on the way out and back to the bus and I am a great fan of “shadow images” so I have included one of them here which I as quite pleased with. I love the outline of the trees so clearly marked in the setting sun. I am sure that with a proper DSLR camera, tripod and all the rest that I could have made a much better job but this is the trade-off. Would I have had a better day out in a town I had quite unashamedly fallen in love with for reasons as outlined above had I been carrying half a hundredweight of camera gear? I think not. Thankfully, I do not do photography for a living or I would have starved to death years ago but my trusty little compact, which is exactly the same size as my cigarette packet, still gets the job done. At least I hope it gets the job done although perhaps I am deluding myself and, as always, I shall let my loyal little band of readers decide.
Back to Valletta and a quick couple of beers before getting back home to Sliema and off to bed. What a great day yet again.
I was falling rather in love with Malta but then again that is a failing of mine if it can be seen to be a failing. I have had the great good fortune, not accorded to many, to have visited many countries, most of them amazing and perhaps it is a failing that I just seem to love everywhere I visit. I may have a simplistic or even childlike view of the world but I am fully aware of how lucky I have been. I have dear friends who have been to over 100 countries each but only one of them wants to do it as a “challenge” i.e. to visit every one of the 192 countries recognised by the UN, which is generally regarded as the international standard.
For myself, I’ll just go where the road takes me and hopefully to as good a time as I have had thus far. I have obviously taken off on another digression here and I would offer this as an observation to younger readers (if, indeed there are any), and that is to travel as much as you can as young as you can. It is a very perverse state of affairs that the people that have the time and money to travel are old grey hairs like me and maybe do not have the physical abilities to do so as they once did. Don’t get me wrong, the “grey brigade” is the fastest growing sector of the travel industry (and has been for a few years now) and long may it continue but it just seems a little odd.
A while ago I was talking to a mate of mine with two grown up kids (both at Uni) and, in the course of conversation, he told me that he and the good lady were off to the Far East skiing. When I mentioned that it wasn’t really skiing country he smiled and said to me, “No SKIing” as in “Spending the Kids Inheritance” which I thought was brilliant. I have no kids so the argument is somewhat redundant in my case but you get the point.
Still more to come so in Malta so stay tuned and spread the word.