Tuesday, July 1, 2008

How do you make a Maltese Cross?

The advantage of this lifestyle is that when a budget airfare pops up on the internet, you can say 'Lets Go!' (yeah OK, a travel guide has already said that.)

This time: Malta. I had a rough idea where it was, just grab the atlas to confirm. I know absolutely nothing about it, or its reputation as a destination. Will soon learn. And it converted to the Euro earlier this year - better still.

So, eyes wide open, off we go. All the while trying to rid my mind of Deb's terrible attempt at humour with some people from Malta, at a hotel reception in Addis Abiba, Ethiopia, with her bad 'How do you make a Maltese Cross' joke: take their room, the last available one.

Well it was alright. Bit of a surprise. Dead easy for getting around. In some ways like a living museum. Not theme park-ish, but all very time time-warped. And somewhat sleepy, in a nice, relaxed, kind of way.

It's tiny, consisting of two islands, Malta and Gozo. Travel is built around ferries that run the harbours of Valletta, with others running to some costal towns. A larger car-carrying, inter-island ferry runs between the two main islands. I suppose in that way it's a bit like Noo Zillan, with a third smaller island (Comino) that hardly anyone lives on. (Actually, apart from the number of islands, and a ferry between two main islands, it's nothing like NZ.)

And really the main transport attraction is the collection of well-preserved, antique buses that make up the network. Fantastic travel. The drivers play their own selection of music CDs. It's a funny thing, the drivers reckon they became very popular with tourists when the Euro was introduced, and they realised how cheap they were.
Before that, apparently, the tourists sherked dealing with odd Maltese change.

The one outstanding feature was the complete lack of a service culture. With an attitude of 'if you tourists want to come here, fine. But don't expect us to get excited about it.'

Valletta, the capital, is interesting. We stayed in the Sliema district, across the Marsamxett harbour, and bounded by ocean coast on the other side. Streets, as in smaller towns, are narrow. There's many streets which are actually stairs. Like Spain, there's heavy Christian influence.

They specialise in unique light poles.

And rather special front door handles.

At every turn, it seemed, there was something quirky.

Being situated in the Mediterranean, its history is chequered with the comings and goings of many people. Quaint museums display the artefacts of Cathaginians, Romans and especially the Bronze Age.

St Paul was shipwrecked there, and is credited with introducing Christianity to Malta. There is a great catacombs you can visit. (The sign reads: 'Saint Paul street.') The Arabs did take over in 890 AD, and the Maltese language today is still heavily Arab influenced.

For several hundred years, Knights of St. John of Jerusalem (Knights Hospitallers) influenced Malta, initially running hospitals for sick pilgrims on the way to the Holy Land. And then they became fighters , and it became a base for the crusaders. This is a big part of the image of Malta presented today.

After the French revolution when the Knights sided with the Royalists, it became French controlled under Napoleon. But he had little interest in it. Locals attacked when Napoleon had gone off elsewhere. In 1814, it became a British crown colony, and in 1921 it established a self-overning constitution with the Maltese looking after their own domestic affairs. The Brits still maintain their interest, it was a great location for shipping heading off to the Suez Canal.

The island as a whole was awarded the George Cross for bravery for withstanding the Nazi bombings of World War II, thus strangling the supply routes to the German Afrika Korp.

In 1974 it became a republic, and in 2004 joined the EU. But there's still many a down-on-his-luck pom washed up in bars here.

Naturally, the water, the ocean, is a big part of Malta life. Cruise ships come and go, fortesses were built to defend against sea raiders, today there are small fishing boats tcked away in every corner of harbours, and the super yachts of the European wealthy are moored in marinas where locals fish in between them.

Relics of all the history are scattered across the islands. And it does make for an interesting enough distraction to your stay.

The weather wasn't bad, but was very breezy. We had hoped to use our Egyptian-gained diving certificates, but the boats couldn't get out. In fact, because of the wind, the harbour ferries were tied up for most of the time we were there. The Gozo ferry, being bigger and more sea worthy, had no problems.

So there you go. Pleased I've been there, pleased I've seen it. Again pleased to have shown my ignorance up. It really does have a place in history.

On the way home we had a one night stopover in Barcelona. Enough time to get down to the waterfront, and then up to Montjuic in the afternoon.

Found some nice back street bars for food and drinks that night. And next day, enough time to do a trip to La Sagrada Família, the amazing, contentious, Gaudi designed cathedral, still under contruction which adds to its appeal and a visit's worth.Getting there early, for the first lift up to the top of the tower and the incedible walk down - a four hundred step spiral staircase. A beaut 27 hours.

aka Max

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