Monday, April 21, 2014

An Afternoon in Valletta, Malta

We woke up early in Gharb for our final Maltese adventure in Valletta. We left at 9:30, reversing our original journey. We took a bus from Gharb to Victoria, then from Victoria to Mgarr, then a ferry from Mgarr to Cirkewwa. For some reason I thought Valletta was just another short bus or taxi ride from from Cirkewwa but I was wrong. We were on the bus for almost an hour after our already hours-long trek from Gharb. It wasn't too bad though. The streets were a little less bumpy and we were able to see a lot of nice scenery as we drove through the island on the way to Valletta.

Grand Harbor from
Hotel Phoenicia's Gardens
At almost 2pm we finally reached our destination, the Hotel Phoenicia. It's conveniently located right next to the bus station so at least we didn't have a difficult time finding it once we were there. Hotel Phoenicia was built in 1939, the first luxury hotel in Malta. It's situated just outside the city's walls and sprawled over 7.5 acres of beautiful, fragrant gardens. The hotel hearkens back to the days of old-world charm. It really feels like you're stepping back in time when you enter the grand foyer and pass through to the opulent, chandeliered lounge area. The hotel is currently undergoing renovations to add some 21st-century amenities but you can still have a good look at its original grandeur. Thick-carpeted banquet rooms with heavy, luxurious drapes over the windows still sit untouched, waiting to be introduced to the future.

The pool is the best part about Hotel Phoenicia. After a leisurely walk through the gardens, pausing to look at breathtaking views of Valletta's harbor, you find yourself at the base of the city walls, a large and welcoming pool beckoning you to jump in for a dip. The water is kept at the perfect temperature-- slightly heated for the cool April breezes wafting through the gardens at sunset. But I'm getting ahead of myself. We definitely did some sightseeing in Valletta before lounging poolside at the end of the day.

We had lunch at the Pegasus restaurant in the hotel since we were tired and starved after our unexpectedly long journey to Valletta. This lunch was one of my husband's favorite meals so far this year. Both of us enjoyed sumptuous soups as starters and fresh, grilled sea bass for the main course. Our waiter was extremely friendly and eager to inquire about our thoughts on Malta so far. He was clearly very proud and passionate about his country and had lots of suggestions (if only we had more time!) for us. We told him we had enjoyed our time in Gharb very much and everyone we met was so kind.
"Ahh, that is characteristic of the Maltese!" he said with unabashed pride. "We are a very friendly people. The only time you can say something bad about us is when we are driving. Then, we get very hotheaded!"

It was late afternoon by the time we finished lunch so we rushed out of the hotel to see what we could of the city before the sun set. Valletta is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fortified city is well-preserved, its hilly, cobbled streets ending at the glistening blue waters of the Grand Harbor.

St. John's Co-Cathedral is a must-see. It was commissioned in 1572 as the conventual church for the Knights of St. John and it's dedicated to St. John the Baptist. The Knights' mission was to protect the Catholic faith from attacks from the Ottoman Turks. The cathedral's stunning interior features over 400 colorful inlaid marble tombs commemorating some of the most illustrious Knights of the Order of St. John. They date from the early 17th century to the 19th century.

The walls and ceilings glitter with gold and Caravaggio's largest canvas, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist is the alter piece of the Oratory. Not only is it his largest painting, it's also the only one he's known to have signed (completed in 1608).

From the cathedral, we wandered the streets of Valletta, taking in the views of the sea. We lined up with a large crowd to indulge in scoops of ice cream from Caffe Cordina, "Malta's Finest Coffee Shop." We were a little disappointed that we arrived in Valletta too late to visit all of its important sites, but just walking around the city was a pleasure. The sun was shining and the sea was sparkling so we really enjoyed our time, even though it was short.

We made our way back to the hotel for a refreshing swim at the pool and watched the sun set over the harbor as the walls of the city rose behind us. What more could you ask for?

Since we had to wake up at four the next morning for our insanely early flight, we decided to have dinner at the hotel's Phoenix Restaurant. We actually preferred the lunch at Pegasus over dinner at Phoenix, but the food was still good. We were serenaded by an old-school piano player who regaled us with Elton John classics. We were the youngest diners in the restaurant by about 30 years so it was certainly an appropriate soundtrack for the crowd. But I suppose you're never too young or old for B-B-B-Bennie and the Jets.

Malta is a wonderful place to visit. It's a slice of heaven in the Mediterranean. The water is breathtakingly beautiful and the people are extremely friendly. Everything seems to be suspended in time, especially the village of Gharb. It's a good place to go if you want to feel like you're at the ends of the earth... until you hear those rickety buses crashing down the dusty streets. But riding the buses has its own charms. The drivers are nice (and brave) and being on the bus makes you realize just how small the island is because everyone knows each other and offers a "Good Morning" or "Good Day" whether you're a tourist or their neighbor.

I'll miss you, Malta.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Getaway to Gozo (Malta)

We're lucky there was no snow this winter and temperatures were mild compared to the past two years, but we were thinking well in advance when we planned a trip in April to a warm, sunny place on the sea. We thought that by then, we would be tired of the cold and gloom. Sure enough, it was cloudy and chilly when we left Eindhoven for the Mediterranean shores of Malta.

We decided to make this vacation a relaxing one. No rushing from monument to monument, waiting in line at museums, crossing off countless items on a 'To-See' list. This time we'd laze around a pool and set our clocks by island time, no deadlines and no commitments other than watching the sun rise and set over the sea.

With this goal in mind, we rented a farmhouse on the Maltese island of Gozo in a tiny village called Gharb. We wanted remote and remote was certainly what we got. Our guidebook was a little misleading because we thought it would take us maybe 2 hours to get from the airport to Gharb. We landed in the early afternoon and didn't reach Gharb until almost 6pm! This was after taking a 45-minute bus from the airport to Cirkewwa ferry. Then after we'd managed to haul our luggage off the bus, we realized why everyone had made a mad rush for the terminal. We just missed the ferry by a minute. The next one wasn't for another 45 minutes. 

On the Ferry to Gozo
It was a 25-minute ferry ride to the harbor town of Mgarr on Gozo. We figured out the bus schedule and hopped aboard the next one to Victoria, the capital city of Gozo. 25 minutes later we were in Victoria and we still had one more bus to take, this time to Gharb. As luck would have it, we had just missed it and the next one wasn't scheduled for another hour. We quickly decided to take a taxi because even though we were trying really hard not to worry about time and schedules, our journey to the farmhouse was getting a little ridiculous.

Though it took a little longer that we expected, the farmhouse in Gharb was well worth the journey. The house is over 400 years old and furnished with lots of interesting antiques. It came with a private pool, barbecue area, 3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, and a kitchen larger than the one in our apartment in Maastricht. Views of the Gharb countryside out to the Mediterranean sea were also complimentary. All of this cost less than half the price of a hotel! 

Gozo Farmhouse

We were in relaxation mode at last! We walked to a tiny grocery shop and bought items for dinner outside on the deck, overlooking the pool and Gharb's landscape. 


The next morning I was woken up by the brilliant sun streaming through our curtains. I folded them back to find the most perfect sun rising up over the village. We enjoyed a leisurely morning breakfasting on the terrace and breathing in fresh, salty air.


We knew that we needed more supplies for the next couple of days and our host suggested we take the bus back to Victoria where there are more shopping options. The bus schedule for the stop outside our house was once every hour. The bus didn't arrive until about 7 minutes after its posted time but it didn't bother us. Maltese bus drivers are on island time, too.

Now, a word about buses and driving in Malta in general. In Gozo, the roads are far from smooth. Riding the bus was a jarring experience, to say the least. There are potholes everywhere and the roads are so narrow that if two vehicles meet, one has to reverse itself back down the road to allow the other to pass. The bus drivers are fearless. I held my breath as we lurched past tractor-trailers and other buses. Once, our bus almost completely backed down a hill and I thought we were going to end up in the living room of the house behind us. Of course, no calamities occurred. It was easy to distinguish between the few tourists on the island and the native Maltese. Tourists were cringing and clutching the railings while the Maltese were calmly reading newspapers and chatting on their cell phones as we careened around corners and bumped onward to the next stop.

Phone Booth in Gharb

Finally we made it to Victoria and decided on a 25-minute walk to the nearest Lidl. One great thing about Malta (for us) is that most signs are in English and most people speak English extremely well. Malta was part of the British Empire for over 150 years. Driving is on the left, red British telephone booths pop up unexpectedly, and beer is sold in pints. We encountered lots of British people while we were in Malta. It seems like a very popular retirement destination for them. 

So, back to Lidl. It was just like any other Lidl you'd find in Germany except everything was in English. We procured most of what we needed and as we were doing a final check, we heard a voice over the intercom say, "We are now closing until 4. Please do not place any more items in the checkout line." We were still searching for a couple of necessities and I frantically turned to my husband and asked, "Did you hear that? They're closing until 4?!"
"Yeah, I heard," he said. "That's so weird."
"Oh no. I think they must do afternoon siestas here or something and all of the business are going to be closed! Maybe even the bus drivers will take naps! How are we going to get the rest of our stuff and get back to Gharb?!" I replied frantically.
"I don't know but I guess we don't have a choice," he said.

We began throwing all of our merchandise onto the nearest conveyor belt. I looked around, wondering why everyone else in the store was still shopping calmly even though all of the cashiers were getting ready to close their registers and take naps in the break room.

Suddenly, another announcement was made, "We are now closing until 2. Please do not place any more items in the checkout line."

"What?!" I exclaimed. "This is crazy! Now they're only closing until 2? Why did they change it?"
My husband, as confused as I was, said, "I don't know. This is so weird."

Finally, after we'd tossed all of our groceries haphazardly onto the belt, I had a moment of clarity. Again, an announcement came over and said, "We are now closing until 1." I suddenly realized that Lidl wasn't closing until 4, 2, or even 1. They were closing TILLS 4, 2, and 1. Tills as in registers. You can imagine how boneheaded we felt. It reminded me of when we first moved here and everything we encountered called for panic and confusion. I guess it just goes to show that foreign travel, no matter how often you do it, can still leave you flummoxed-- even if everyone around you is speaking your native language.

We made our way back to the bus stop and, conveniently, had just missed the next one. Bus fare in Malta is extremely inexpensive. Two all-day tickets are just 3 Euros. But since we had several full bags, and it was hot and we were tired, we decided on taking a taxi again. It's difficult to cough up 10 Euros after spending only 3 for the bus but we were ready for our siestas, even if the rest of the island was still carrying on with business as usual.

Street in Gharb

We spent the rest of the day reading and relaxing by the pool. It's amazing how quickly the hours pass when there's nothing to do except admire the view and lounge. 

The next morning was dedicated to Comino Island and The Blue Lagoon. Comino is a tiny island between Malta and Gozo (closer to Gozo). We took the bus from Gharb to Victoria, then to Mgarr to catch a boat to Comino. As soon as we stepped off the bus we were approached by a man who shoved brochures at us and told us that his boat to The Blue Lagoon was leaving in 5 minutes and we'd better be on it because the next one wouldn't leave for another hour. We were a little put-off by his aggressive approach but we took a brochure and said we'd think about it after we'd used the toilet. Once we came out, we were again accosted by someone, this time a woman. She told us we needed to get on the boat right away, making it sound as if we'd be stranded on Mgarr forever if we didn't act now. We agreed to go and when we stepped aboard the boat we realized the man who first approached us was the captain. Evidently, they were a very effective husband-and-wife team. We soon realized that the captain was very kind. I suppose you have to be sort of aggressive in order to make an on-the-spot sell in their line of work.

The boat ride took about 30 minutes. We were taken through beautiful caves and came across some kayakers. The water was the most deep and beautiful blue I've ever seen. It was almost unreal how clear it was. When we finally reached the shores of The Blue Lagoon, it took my breath away. This water was cyan blue, literally halfway between blue and green. I've never seen such sparkling water, not even in a swimming pool. 

Admittedly, we took our trip to Malta when the water is still cold. Most people (other than my husband) weren't brave enough to venture into the water. There were also lots of jellyfish to avoid. Though I'm sad I wasn't able to swim in The Blue Lagoon, a part of me is very glad we went when we did. I've seen photos of what it looks like during the summer months. There are literally hundreds of people camped out on top of each other on the craggy rocks. Party boats blasting loud music are docked in the water and some people complain about the amount of garbage left behind at the end of the day. It was still crowded when we were there, but comfortably so. We weren't disturbed by cacophonous music and we had a suitable space to lounge right at the water's edge. We stayed on Comino for a couple of hours and then boarded the boat back to Mgarr. 

The Blue Lagoon

We needed dinner for the night but this time we decided to forego Lidl and instead we shopped at a gourmet grocery store inside a mall. We grabbed lunch at a trendy little wine bar. Other patrons were all British retirees. Two ladies lunching beside us were having an animated conversation about one of their granddaughters and her terrible boyfriend.
"He's just dreadful! Dreadful!" she said.
"What does she expect to do for work, once she gets there?" asked her friend.
"I don't have any clue. He's been no help to her while she's looked for a job," she replied.
"A bloody arsehole is what he sounds like."
The protective grandmother took a dainty sip of her wine and replied, "Yes. You ought to see his Facebook."

I don't know why, but even conversations about Facebook sound so gentile coming from British ladies.

We returned to the farmhouse for one last relaxing evening. The sun rose every morning around the back of the house but we had yet to see it set. We found the perfect spot over a farmer's field and watched as the brilliant yellow faded to burnt orange. 

Sun Setting in Gharb

Our relaxing days in Gozo had come to an end but we weren't finished with Malta yet. We were spending one afternoon and night in Valletta before making our return trip to The Netherlands.

Goodbye, Gharb. You're certainly worth all of the ferry, boat, and bus rides. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Edinburgh Castle and Haggis

We bought tickets in advance for Edinburgh Castle. It saved us a few pounds and some time since we avoided the long line of people waiting to purchase their tickets, and instead went straight to a self-service kiosk (no line) to retrieve ours.

Edinburgh Castle

The oldest part of the castle, St. Margaret's Chapel, dates back to the 12th century. It was used as a private place of worship for the royal family. I was surprised to learn that it's still used today for christenings and weddings!

Scottish National
War Memorial
We visited the Great Hall of King James IV and the Royal Palace. Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to James VI in the palace. The dungeons below the Great Hall housed prisoners of war from the late 18th to early 19th centuries. We also gazed upon Scotland's crown jewels, the oldest in the British Isles. The Stone of Destiny, also known as the Stone of Scone, is the main attraction in the Crown Room. For centuries it was used as a traditional coronation seat for Scotland's kings and queens. It was stolen in 1296 by English King Edward I and taken to Westminster Abbey. In 1950 some Scottish Nationalists brought the stone back to Scotland but it was soon returned to Westminster. Finally, in 1996, the Stone of Destiny was given back to Scotland and installed in the Crown Room.

The Scottish National War Memorial is very moving. It commemorates those who died during World Wars I and II, and of military campaigns since 1945. Inside the Hall of Honour is a steel casket containing a complete Roll of Honour of the Scottish dead. The shrine is illuminated by beautiful stained glass windows.

Regimental Museums Entrance
We also strolled through the Regimental Museums, comprised of the Royal Scots Museum and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Museum. These regiments are two of Scotland's oldest and their histories are told in chronological order using everything from medals and old maps to personal accounts and artwork. Both museums are comprehensive and one could easily spend several hours wandering through and absorbing all of the history.

One of the world's most famous guns is also located at Edinburgh Castle. Mons Meg was given to King James II by Duke Philip of Burgundy in 1457. The 6-ton canon is capable of firing gunstones weighing 330lbs to a distance of nearly 2 miles. Mons Meg was last fired in 1681. A plaque beside it reads: "Defend Mons Meg! Please do not climb on Mons Meg. She leveled castle walls and terrified the enemies of Scotland's kings. But that was more than 500 years ago. Please treat this grand old lady with some respect."

Mons Meg

And speaking of canons, we stayed around to watch the One o'clock Gun Firing. It happens every day except Sunday and draws quite a crowd in anticipation. The origin of the tradition comes from the days when timepieces weren't available to sailing ships. They were able to check and reset their chronometers based upon the firing of the gun.

One o'clock Gun Firing

After our morning spent at the castle, it was time for lunch. We decided to browse colorful Victoria Street until we found a place that piqued our interest. We ended up having a very nice lunch at Howie's, The menu was an interesting blend of Mediterranean dishes and Scottish favorites.

Having accomplished almost everything on our Edinburgh To-Do List, we spent the rest of the afternoon walking around Edinburgh, investigating Closes and window-shopping to the soundtrack of bagpipes. The weather was perfect and it was a nice way to cap off our final day.

We really wanted to try a traditional Scottish dining experience for dinner so we made reservations at Dubh Prais (pronounced Doo Prash). Reservations are a little difficult to come by so we ended up with a very early dinner time of 5:30. Though early, we weren't alone in the popular restaurant. Other diners quickly filled the small room that seats just 24 people. Our waitresses were very friendly and we even caught glimpses of the chef and owner as he prepared and finessed the dishes. I chose soup for my starter while my brave husband went in for the kill with haggis. Every restaurant prepares haggis a little differently. At Dubh Prais it's rolled in oatmeal, pan-fried, and served with a creamy leek and whiskey sauce. My husband had a bit of a difficult time getting it down but for some reason he had resolved to eat the entire portion and he achieved his goal. It wasn't until when we were at the airport waiting to board our flight back home that he looked up the official ingredients of haggis and turned a lovely shade of pea green.

For the main course I chose salmon and he went with a saddle of venison. Dessert was a light, delectable lemon shortcake. The food was excellent and I think if you are on a mission to eat haggis while you're in Edinburgh, Dubh Prais is probably one of the best options. Make sure to reserve well in advance for a more traditional dinner time, but if those slots are filled just take the earlier time-- you won't be sorry.

Our time in Edinburgh had sadly come to its end. We spent a lovely two days in the capital city and I would be happy to return again any time. People were very friendly, the city wasn't too overcrowded with tourists, and it was nice to be able to read and hear things in English. Sometimes you just miss small talk.

Until next time, Edinburgh. Keep the haggis in stock for my husband!