Wednesday, 31 October 2007

More Climbing

Today was supposed to be a quiet day of rest and relaxation, but Fisher decided she really wanted to go climbing and gave me the big eyes, so off we went.

This time we had a nice young man who showed us the ropes - ha ha - and was very cheery about it. We had a 2 hour session, and I conquered my previous nemesis with ease, proving my biggest obstacle is stamina. Fisher can dangle off walls and actually recharge her batteries, but when my fingers have gone, they've gone.

Anyhoo - we had a lovely time conquering the walls, did a spot of bouldering at the end, and went home satisfied members of A Vertical World. Tip top tastic. We can now rock up and pay £4.50 for a session, bring 2 guests with us, and hopefully improve our strength and fitness.

Good stuff.

Of course, I'm utterly knackered now, and disheartened by the fact that Fisher is blonde and therefore gets all the praise and fawning from all instructors, while I get totally ignored (save for when I'm being told I 'wander' or to keep the rope tighter). Hey ho. At least I can console myself that I don't actually care.


By gum, I feel really quite pooped. Yesterday was supposed to involve gentle exercise and a nosebag with Fonda. Instead, Fisher decided she wanted to go for a run and guilted me into doing some exercise as well. I haven't been for a bike ride in ages, but also recognised I ought to run - so I drove to St Andrews, parked at the Old Course, and ran to the gym which is just over 1.5 miles - I could only measure it roughly, and I think it's about 1.7. I set a good pace for me, and finished in 18 minutes. I then did 20 minutes on the gym bike, on 'hill' setting (killer - starts on 4, goes gradually up to 20, then 18, 14 and 9 before finishing on 4 again) and covered just under 5 miles.

I was quite tired after this. Back home we wolfed baguettes from Cherries and gave ourselves indigestion, watched Countdown and the awful champion pulverise another poor sap (I'm terrible at the moment - can't get over a 7 letter word and mostly struggling for 6s), and tried to chill out before aquafit.

We picked Fonda up at 6.30 and headed into Dundee. Aquafit felt more strenuous this time round, but probably only because of the exercise we'd already done. Looking around the class I realised they'd probably sorted the wheat from the chaff because I couldn't find a single person not putting effort in. There was only one woman younger than us - and boy can those older women work out! There was a granny behind me with her shoulders so far out of the water you could almost see her waist.


I must say, I find aquafit a little dull and was clock watching from about 15 minutes from the end - but it is a nice change from the usual routine. It was also lovely to go out to the DCA for supper with Fonda, whom we haven't seen for months and who's back together with her flakey boyfriend (well, he sounds flakey anyway) and hating her boring job. Still, she was cheerful and chatty as ever, so it was great. We had a very pleasant night - and now it's the next day and I feel like I was run over by a bus.

Fisher is off getting milk for coffee, so I'm really hoping a caffeine jolt will make everything rosier.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Fires and Frustration

Yesterday was excellent! While feeling the effects of my mammoth mug of coffee, I declared myself eager to get out and do something, rather than just park myself in front of the telly and wait for decent footie. After all, what's the point of Sky+ if not to whip TV into a corner and force it to mould itself around your life, rather than vice versa?

The trouble was, I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I was quite keen on the idea of popping into Auld Reekie to catch the Warhol exhibition - but discovered, to my chagrin, that it was the end of October and the Warhol was long over. We hit t'internet and scoured What's On in Fife (absolutely bugger all), then searched Dundee. Turns out the McManus is closed for major refurbishment, the DCA is showing sweet FA of interest, and the only other thing to do in Dundee is watch movies (according to The List, anyway) for which neither of us were in the mood. So we turned our attention to the whole of Scotland, and discovered some archaeological park was burning a Wicker Man in a place called Oyne. Thrilled at the thought of watching something - maybe even someone?? - get set on fire, I called the
Archaeolink Prehistory Park and quizzed them about it. Would it just be the burning of a big old bunch of man-shaped twigs, or would there be other stuff as well?

"Ooh, no, we've got everything!" said the cheerful lassie on the other end. "As well as the burning, there's pagan chanting, the dedication of animals to the gods, human sacrifice - oo, and a tombola!"

I agreed that the chance to win a large Celtic sword was too good an opportunity to miss and put the phone down. Turning to Fisher with a look of pleading in my eyes, I found her regarding me with the dubious affection I've come to know and love.

"Can we, can we?" I'm afraid I squealed. When she hesitated I prepared for a small tantrum - then a thought struck me. "Where is Oyne, anyway?"

"Further north than Aberdeen," came the response. "It'll be a two and a half hour drive."

"Oh," I said, relieved, "that's all right then. Can we, can we?"

"Of course dear," she sighed, "I'll get my coat."

So we packed the dogs into the car and headed north.

It was a long drive, only made unpleasant by the discovery that once you get further north than Dundee there isn't a public loo to be found for love nor money. We stopped at a petrol station: loos out of order. We stopped at another: no loo. We turned off in glee when we saw a sign for WC, and groaned in horror as we passed through the entire village without spotting a single one. With more hope than confidence we stopped at a Somerfield, and while Fisher got cash from the machine I asked if they knew where there was a public loo.

"Dinnae ken," came the response, "but ye can use ours."

"Really?" I breathed, and hurried behind the young man as he led me through eons of corridors, up some stairs, and into the staff loos. Callously, I'd abandoned Fisher to her fate, like a soldier bolting from the trenches. I was then embarrassed by the fact I spent ages sampling their rather lovely soaps, only to emerge eventually and discover the young man waiting to guide me back. He must have thought I had the largest bladder in the world.

Come to think of it, he probably wouldn't have been far wrong.

Anyway, I was relieved but Fisher remained in distress, so we had to stop yet again - this time at a large BP garage where - no joke - the ladies was out of order. Luckily Fisher had the common sense to use the gents instead. Considering we were now a mere 6 miles from our destination, you can see how long this search had gone on.

When we arrived at the Archaeolink Park we were disappointed to discover we couldn't take the dogs in, so they had to be content with a short wander around the car park. We then paid £5.50 each and entered the field.

It's quite a lark, actually. There are several reconstructed Iron Age huts, some of which you can go into. We had a peek round these, avoiding the crowd of people being made to sing Bohemian Rhapsody by a man in a robe clutching a shield, as they waited for the torchlight procession to begin. We then made our way to stand beside the very impressive Wicker Man, choosing as our vantage point a small hillock beside a pond, where two press photographers had set up. Because British people are shy of getting near people who look official, we were the only ones to claim the hillock, and had quite the best view of events.

We hadn't too long to wait before we saw the torchlight procession emerging from the standing stones and wandering around the field towards us. Someone was banging a drum, the torches dripped flame in an impressive manner, threatening to set fire to the ground and - more worryingly - the actors' robes, and it was all suitable atmospheric.

When they entered the field, I thought they'd faff about a bit - maybe get us all singing This Thing Called Love, or maybe just work us all the way through Queen's greatest hits - but it was gratifyingly quick. To shrieks, ululations and pagan roars, the torches were set to the Wicker Man and he was ablaze!

"Oh God!" I cried, in best Edward Woodward style, "Oh God, no! Oh Jesus Christ ..."
Torchlight Procession

"Oh shut up!" Fisher muttered, quashing my pretense to humour. And rightly so. It was a true spectacle, and one best appreciated in silence.

We watched the flames consume Eddie, as I'd affectionately named our wicker pal, and away to our left a vast orange moon rose slowly above the hills. To our right, a man with a beard told his son, Brian, that his camera wouldn't work properly because of the light, and then gave a detailed explanation as to why - including a formula. I was about to mock the spod to Fisher, when she turned to me and made pretty much exactly the same speech regarding her own camera troubles. Thankfully she left out the formula, or our July plans would be seriously altered right now.

Anyway, it was lovely and we held hands as the great man blazed itself into oblivion, warming ourselves in his demise. Then we had a final wander round the field before returning to the car for the long trek home, well pleased.

So that was how we spent Sunday.

Today we abandoned the house to our slightly scary cleaners and took the dogs for a 2.5mile walk at Tentsmuir, enjoying the beautifully crisp sunshine and the quietness of the woods (apart from the poxy RAF). We then went into St Andrews to buy a decent air bed. We had lunch at the West Port and discovered it's become rather pleasant - albeit a far cry from the open fired, wood-floored loveliness it was all those years ago. We chatted about this and that, including the fact I've booked myself in to take my CBT on the 7th November and am now bricking it.

We'd planned on going climbing this evening, but I woke this morning with a recurrence of my cricked neck/back - probably brought on by standing in the cold for a couple of hours yesterday, followed by a long drive and finishing Jak 3 on PS2 (very tense). I was very sorry to have to disappoint Fisher, but even though I really wanted to, I wouldn't be doing myself any favours by dangling from walls. I called the centre and cancelled.


Tomorrow is aquafit with Fonda, followed by supper in Dundee. I'm looking forward to hearing all about her travels, her love life, and why her job sucks so badly (well, not 'looking forward' to the latter, but keen to lend an sympathetic ear, anyway). It's been ages since we last saw her, so there's a lot of catching up to do. She wants to join Holly Commune. Hell, maybe she should!

Maybe everybody should.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Good Day

Today has been rather lovely. I awoke feeling the antsiness of wanderlust and, as Fisher and I sat reading terrible, awful books by Erich Segal (why Lord, why?) I suddenly said:

"Let's go away! Let's just pack up the pooches and go!"

Fisher dragged her eyes up from Doctors and her expression was one I know of old: a fixed, brittle smile with accompanying look of desperation.

"Ok," she agreed, barely concealing a whimper. "Where?"

"I don't know!" I beamed, pretending I couldn't see the horror in her heart. "North, south, west ... anywhere you like! Not east, though," I added, as an afterthought, "'cos we'd get awfully wet." I think I was hoping this pathetic attempt at winsome charm would bring her round.

"For how long?" she chirrupped, her smile now becoming even more frantic. "Only, I have to be back for..."

"Just a few days," I promised. "Back on Monday?"

"Ok," she agreed, silently sobbing as her soul collapsed. Bless. I couldn't stand the pretense any more.

"You really, really don't want to, do you?" I sighed.

"We've only just got back!" she burst out, her pent-up, force 9 wail freed at last, "and we're so HAPPY at home!"

And so, because we're a tried and tested couple who've long known how to go about maintaining our equanimity, we compromised.

Instead of going away for 3 days, we went out for 3 hours.

It was lovely. We scanned my Pathfinder Guide for Perthshire, Angus and Fife walks and chose the Den of Alyth for what professed itself to be a 7 mile walk, taking 3 1/2 hours.

Off we headed, and drove through Dundee and beyond for about 45 minutes. Alyth is the next town over (eastwards) from Coupar Angus, and the circular Den of Alyth walk begins in a carpark at the far west end of the town. After a bit of a detour as the guide was distinctly unclear about the starting point, taking us through a picnic site when we should have skirted it (this would become a bit of a familiar theme throughout the walk), we were on our way.

To begin with, it was divine. We walked through woods, beside a merrily tumbling burn, in a bonfire of red and gold. The dogs could be let off their lead, and splashed joyfully in the water or disappeared up the wooded braes until enticed back with biscuits. It was gorgeous - but after a mile or two we came out at a road. The dogs went back on leads and we followed the B - somethingorother for a mile and a half of pretty but ultimately uninspiring countryside, before missing our turn-off due to the murkiness of our guide. Retracing our steps, we found the fingerpost we'd originally ignored because it was labelled 'Cateran Trail' while the book promised the 'Alyth Hill walk'. Luckily we hadn't gone far before realising our mistake, but it still annoyed me. I could feel some of my euphoria threatened by grumpiness and resolutely banished irritation.

Up Alyth Hill we went, until the guide became extremelt murky - basically guiding us down an 'old drover's road' which just involved launching yourself onto an open brae, owing to the fact the drover's road was old, and therefore non existent. In fact, we'd already walked to the top of Alyth Hill and had to come down again (this was sheer stupidity on our part and had a lot to do, I'm convinced, with Fisher's manic desire for heart-pounding exercise).

Crossing the hill turned out to require a lot of stopping, starting, looking at the book, cursing, bickering and cursing again. Couple this with the fact it was now grey, misty and wet and some of the delights of the walk were palling. I'm not saying I was no longer enjoying myself, but not knowing where I'm going is something that always puts me on edge - at least, when I'm walking. Purposefully getting lost in a car is quite different.

Eventually we found our way back into the village of Alyth (we had yet another minor argument about the pronounciation of this, with me thinking it was Al-ithe like Forsythe, or Rosyth - and Fisher thinking it was Alith, like Alice with a lisp), and were rather surprised to find the car-park a mere step from where we emerged. Because Fisher had her sat. nav. with her, we were able to measure our route and discovered it to be 5.8 miles.

Pathfinder is utter crap. 7 miles, it claimed. Considering we probably did a half mile detour of faff and backtracking, that's a considerable error. Still, it was a good 2 1/2 hour walk and we felt pink-cheeked and healthy, while the sodden dogs couldn't have been happier.

On the way home we stopped at the Belmont Arms pubs for a drink, and found it quite charming. They were serving High Tea so we peeked at a menu. Not cheap, but not bad: £12 for a main meal (chicken dishes, fish n chips, lasagne, that sort of thing - or hearty sounding salads. It was more like £19 if you wanted a steak), vegetables, chips, cake/scones, tea and coffee. If we're passing that way again we'll definitely give it a go. The coffee was very nice, anyway.

Back at home we found the whole house freezing, and almost all the logs gone. There was one left, and with that, the 1 1/2 left in the grate and a couple of scoops of coal, I made a fire. I whacked the storage heating up and grizzled about the clock change. Then we settled down to read, listen to the wind pick up outside, eat fish and chips and watch Match of the Day. Baffie passed out next to me and refused to move, even when I lifted her bodily out of my lap and laid her down on the sofa. She's taken on a new lease of life since being put on arthritis pills, but I think any walk over 3 miles really takes it out of her.

She loves it, though, and no sign of a limp, so Fisher and I have vowed to do more long walks - especially while the leaves are so wonderful.

That's all for tonight.

All in all, a very satisfactory day.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

First Run in Ages (and a rant from nowhere)

Yesterday I allowed Fisher to persuade me into a proper run, the like of which I haven't done since ... well, before I can remember, really. Granted, my memory is so poor I can barely remember last week (seriously - what happened last week?) but I'm pretty sure I haven't done more than a cursorary mile or so in the gym for far too long. I told myself I'd do 5k, taking it easy and just getting back into the swing of things. I thought we'd head to Tentsmuir with the dogs, but Fisher had other ideas.

Thus it was I found myself uneasily setting off, cold tendrils of fog curling about my ankles, to run up Quarry Road and back. Fisher wanted to go further, only turning back once we'd reached the little village on the other side of the hill, but I firmly announced my intention of only doing 5k. I agreed to see how it went and go further if I could, but I so no sense in setting myself too much of a challenge after such a long break.

It was horribly cold to being with. Fisher has been waiting a long time for the weather to turn like this, as she hates running in the sun, but even she was meeping about not having enough clothing. I was too agreeably surprised by not wanting to collapse immediately to really mind the temperature that much, and the world was astonishingly beautiful under a white layer of mist. As we jogged steadily up the long hill, we saw cobwebs glistening like silver in the hedgerows, which detracted slightly from the horror that is the last ten yards of that goddam' rise. What's even more depressing is that you know it's only the first of many. Running up that hill isn't as bad as Arthur's Seat, but it's a close call.

Once you've reached the top of the long hill, you then have the chance to catch your breath a little with a long, flat stretch. Then you turn a corner and, without fail, the next hill catches you by surprise. It's always steeper and longer than you expect. Then it's downhill for about 20 yards, finishing Quarry Road on just over 1.5 miles - meaning you have to turn and go straight back uphill if you want to do 5k. Partly because I simply couldn't face another uphill so soon, and partly because the slow pace I'd set meant I still felt pretty good, stamina wise, I agreed to go into the village with Fisher.

Unfortunately, this means yet another couple of hills - culminating with one of the steepest, albeit shortest, at the very end. My lungs burning, stomach churning, I was once again wondering what in the name of living arse possessed me to go out running? It's, without a doubt, the stupidest thing in the world.

Thankfully, once we'd turned it was pretty much all downhill, save for one long stretch of unpleasant uphill which takes you back onto Quarry Road.

My knees started to object as I hit Quarry Road again, no doubt still reeling from the climbing of t'other day, but on the whole I felt ok. We had to pause a couple of times due to traffic blocking the way, and then warning other traffic of the blockage, which leads me to take a conservative 15 seconds off the end time. When we finished I was seriously knackered but very, very pleased with myself. After a long break, to still be able to do 4 miles in the not truly humiliating time (for me) of 47.53 was an immense boost.

I've learned somthing interesting - and not particularly flattering - about myself since taking up running, and that is just how much justification I allow myself in times of failure. If I don't succeed in a run it's because, oh, I didn't eat the right food, or it's that time of the month, or the dog slowed me down. Sometimes these reasons might be true, but all too often they're just excuses. And it's not just in running, either. All too often I refuse to hold myself accountable for not doing something because I can think of several external reasons keeping me from my goal. In the end, I know perfectly well that if I want something I can combat almost anything in order to get it. There are very few obstacles in life that can't be surmounted with a little imagination and drive. I've no shortage of the former, but the latter needs some work.

First, make a decision. That's truly the hard part. It's commitment, and that's a little scary. But once the decision is made, there is no obstacle that need get in the way. Nothing is unbeatable (well, except the rock-hard cream I found in the fridge the other day). The only question that's relevant is "how much do I want it?" and what I'll suffer to get it.

In some ways, pride is a good thing - but I can't help but feel it's more of a hinderance than a help. I think pride restricts rather than liberates, keeping people bound to conventions that, in the grand scheme of things, are utterly irrelevant. You have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror in the morning, but I think it's more important to understand your own mores rather than just to accept the restrictions of society at face value.

Hm. Not sure where that came from, but it's been on my mind for a while, in a convoluted sort of way.

Anyway ... Fisher and I might go to aquafit tonight. We've been trying to get in touch with Fonda, but no response for weeks now. Hope all ok there, and she's off on some dirty getaway with the newly brought to heel boyfriend.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007


Yesterday (Monday), Fisher and I took advantage of an introductory deal at A Vertical World in Dundee, and headed off for our first ever climbing experience. We dithered over whether to go, because we've been meaning to go with Phid for ages and didn't want to leave her out - but then decided the offer was too good pass up, and recognised that with everyone's schedules being what they are, if we wait we may never get to go at all!

So off we pootled for a private lesson. I expected our instructor to be a 'rock on!' kind of guy, with long hair and a bandanna - or else a wiry Dundonian who took no crap from nobody and once killed a man in 'Nam. In 1995. I was rather pleased when I discovered our guide was, in fact, a very slight young woman - although I was a bit concerned about someone her size belaying someone mine. When, on the form we had to fill out, it asked if I had any medical conditions that might prevent me from climbing, I confessed that I was quite fat. Would that matter?

She assured me it would not. And, as a hurried afterthought, said she'd instructed - and belayed - people much bigger, fatter and hairier than me. Thus reassured, we got ourselves kitted out in hideously uncomfortable harnesses, and even more hideously uncomfortable shoes. Our first challenge was 'bouldering' - climbing small walls over crash mats to get our muscles 'warmed up.' After spidering my way to the top of two walls, my muscles were certainly warm! My fingers and forearms were already protesting a little, and I badly cricked my neck (an old, persistent problem I've wrestled with for many years) meaning my left shoulder was immediately sore. Not enough to trouble me, though, so on we went to the first proper wall.

Our instructor, whose name I have forgotten so will call - er - Instructor - showed us how to tie our ropes in a double figure of 8, and then it was Fisher's turn to battle the first 30 foot wall. This she did with aplomb, looking like she was born to the sport, and was back on the ground before you could say boo to a goose. (Why would anyone say boo to a goose? What would this achieve? Very strange.) My turn next, and what with my fear of heights and everything I was a little nervous. Not to worry, though. Once I was actually on the wall, there was too much to occupy my time to concern myself with plummetting to my death. I found the climb relatively problem free, but it was incredibly hard on my fingers and my forearms were pretty tired by the time I reached the top. Back to earth, we moved straight on to the next wall. This was slightly trickier, but we both managed tolerably well. I was lucky to find a good route, and climbed to the top quite quickly - according to Instructor. It didn't feel that quick to me, or my now trembling fingers.

Without a stop for a breather, we moved onto wall number three - and this time we were told to belay each other. Instructor showed us the 5 positions of belaying, which I will now attempt to remember. Ahem.

1. Pull rope UP with right hand, tightening slack.
2. Pull rope DOWN with right hand, putting 'brakes' on.
3. Move left hand to top of lower rope, above right hand.
4. Slide right hand up beneath left hand.
5. Replace left hand on top rope, as start position.

Easy. Except with the rate Fisher started bombing up the third wall, and my natural kack-handedness, I started quite poorly. Naturally Fisher was never in danger as Instructor had hold of the brake rope as well, and I quickly got the hang of it, so all was well. When Fisher reached the top, I lowered her none too gently to the ground. Being cautious, I took rather too long about it and didn't give her as much slack as she needed, which meant the harness cut uncomfortably into her tender regions!

Then it was my turn to climb. Fisher belayed without difficulty, but by this stage my fingers and arms were really suffering. I spent a long time battling this wall, and once we'd finished I didn't think I'd ever be able to grip anything again for as long as I live! Instructor suggested we take a break, reminding us that because we were having a private lesson it was much more full on than if we were there with a group, when you have a chance to rest for longer between each climb. This made me feel slightly less effete - until I attempted to open a can of coke and discovered my fingers didn't even have the strength to perform this paltry task!

After a ten minute breather we were back on the walls - this time tackling a corner wall, which we both found very tricky, and took a long time conquering. Nevertheless we both succeeded in making the top - Fisher making some remarkable noises in her exertion - and returned to earth well pleased. By this time our hour and a half was almost up, and we had one more wall to tackle. This one had an overhang you had to get over, and it was almost the beating of Fisher. It took her ages, but she persevered and reached the top, straining every muscle in order to do so. A fantastic effort! You were supposed only to use the black holds, and apart from a few 'cheats' she managed to stick to the route pretty well.

Then it was my turn. I set off with a will, reaching the overhang and getting over it without too much trouble. Then I simply couldn't go further. My fingers wouldn't hold me up, and my forearms had just had enough. I couldn't reach a decent hand-hold, or balance myself properly with my feet, and after slipping off the wall twice I just had to admit defeat. Fisher lowered a furious me to the ground - and then leaned too far forward and found herself being lifted off the ground by my greater weight. This did nothing to improve my mood as I dropped outwith her control, but luckily I was close enough to the ground for it not to be a problem (and Instructor was there also).

My failure on the last wall quite spoiled the whole thing for me. Silly, certainly, but seeing Fisher conquer it after such a monumental effort only made my failure all the greater. I was livid with myself, and utterly baffled to explain why my fingers and arms were all but unusable while hers were relatively unaffected. She says she doesn't really rely on them, barely using them at all in fact, save as supports. I pull myself up and cling on, using a great deal of upper body strength, which I suppose must be going about it the wrong way. However, I don't really see how else to go about it. I can't just use my legs - my balance doesn't allow it. Whenever I tried to push up using only my legs I found myself in danger of falling. I had to have something to pull myself up with by hand.

Hey ho. It was galling to feel so like a failure, and so shown up by Fisher, but in the cold light of day I don't think it was as bad as all that. I managed all the other walls fine, and enjoyed myself quite a lot - so I'll definitely be returning.

Watch this space.

Sunday, 21 October 2007


So, despite not wanting to move a muscle today, I was prevailed upon to go into Dundee and have a swim, and a bash at the aqua gym. The aqua gym was a total waste of time, as I think it's more geared up to people undergoing physiotherapy than those in search of a testing workout. However, I will now only ever be going to the training pool in Dundee, as it was all but deserted!

I did 600 metres, 500 of which were completed in 14 minutes. Ish.

I really must start trying to speed up.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Malta VI

Our last day was horribly grey, windy and wet. We took Lu and Arrow to Ta' Qali, the old RAF air strip from WWII that is now turned into a craft 'village' and pootled around Mdina glass for a while. It's quite fun, as you see Maltese glass blowers actually plying their trade, with typical lack of care for their own safety. I didn't see a single pair of protective glasses, an apron, or anything at all really. One female glass blower sported a fetching pair of high heeled sandals. I can't imagine what would have happened to her feet if she'd dropped any white-hot glass on them. They all wandered around with iPods plugged in, molten bits of blown glass at the end of long poles, and nary a care in the world. The glass, though, was beautiful.

Less beautiful are the depressing shacks where silver workers produce the usual filigree, and Maltese crosses, and attempt to flog them to curious tourists. Sad.

It being a dull day, and having done so much, we couldn't really summon up the energy to have a big sight-seeing day, so after Ta' Qali we set off on a long trip round the island, taking in the coastal road and finishing up at St George's Bay where Lu had to buy herself a Hard Rock Café t-shirt for some reason (!). The usual bedlam of poor signing, diversions and appalling traffic served to put me in a thoroughly bad temper, but a cup of terrible coffee at one of the tourist bars you find in that neck of the woods cheered me up. There's nothing like reminding yourself how lucky you are not to be staying in Package Tour Hell to give your mood a boost.

Once the t-shirt was bought and a geochache found, we set off in search of lunch. Astonishingly we drove right the way round the coast and found nothing open at all, despite it being the most touristy part of the island. We eventually ended up at the St James Centre in Valletta eating tolerable pizza while the rain tipped down on the awning beneath which we huddled.

The rest of the day was devoted to football, which was my concession to myself. Arrow and I found - eventually - a café in Porto Masso with the right channel, and we witnessed England get soundly and rightfully beaten by Russia in Moscow. It was the England of old: hoof the ball long, lose possession, defend, then hoof the ball long. When will Steven Gerrard actually produce a performance worth noting for England?

Anyway, they lost, so it's highly doubtful they'll qualify for the European championships and I can be left in goddamned peace. Scotland managed to get themselves gubbed by Georgia as well, which is just the shit icing on the cake of shit, really.

After watching the England game, we zoomed back to the house, dropped Lu and Fisher off and picked up Ma, and headed to the National Stadium to watch Malta try not to finish bottom of the group as they battled Moldova. We arrived a few minutes after kick off, to find the skies open and bucketing down, while everyone stood willy nilly wherever they chose. No stewards kept people in their seats, so I spent an inordinate amount of time asking people to stop standing in front of us so we couldn't see.

The first half was dire. Malta went 0-3 down and looked to have no answers at all to Moldova's more organised attack. The second half was equally dreadful, until the last 15 minutes when their burly number 3 went on a chest-thumping run up the field before passing to some geezer, who managed to keep possession even after a solid tackle and score a superb goal, bending the ball along the ground, round the keeper's outstretched hand and into the bottom right corner. The stadium went mildly crazy, but not nearly as insane as when a penalty was awarded a few minutes later and the ball was coolly slotted past the keeper to make it 2-3. Alas, although their efforts were valiant, Malta couldn't score again and the game finished with a disappointing loss.

I don't think Ma will be back in a hurry - at least, not in weather like that! - but she did get terribly excited over the two Malta goals, to the extent she nearly poked the poor bloke behind us in the eye with her umbrella as she yelled 'whoopee!' and waved it frantically in the air.

We returned home drenched, ate bread and soup, and turned in for an early night. It was a 5am start the next day, followed by the usual hell of travel - but the rewards at the end were great, as LC had not only kept our pooches happy as lambs, but cleaned the house from top to bottom as well! There's nothing better than a clean house and ecstatic dogs.

And that, amigos, is that.


I love Gozo! If you want to see Malta 30 years ago, just hop on a ferry at Cirkewwa and cross to the second largest island in the archipelago. We were lucky because Ma decided to come with us, which meant Arrow and Lu had the benefit of her knowledge, rather than having to put up with the fact that, despite my familiarity with these islands, I really don't know anything at all of use.

On our way north, we stopped at Wardija to visit Sam Cremona's olive grove, where new Maltese olive oil is being grown with enormous success. Now Mr Cremona has grafted original Maltese trees, the fruit produced is superb. Before he used imported plants, and they didn't take to the soil well, meaning the oil was bitter and unpalatable. Now they're making sweet, incredibly acid-free oil or incredible quality. Malta used to be a real force in the Mediterranean's olive production, which is reflected in the number of places that incorporate zebbug (the Maltese word for 'olive') into their names.

Anyway, we didn't get to meet Sam Cremona, who had to rush off and visit his mother in St Paul's Bay, but his wife Matti was charming and showed us the teeny tiny press they're using, talked us through the process, and let us taste some of the oil. It really is good! Fisher and I bought 3 bottles, and I plan on using it liberally when I cook for people in November. It needs to be eaten quickly, so no point in saving it.

After Wardija we headed to the ferry, only to be given a serious run-around by the Maltese inability to direct you anywhere. Owing to the rough sea, the ferry wasn't going from its usual spot, so a man waved us vaguely in a direction best described as 'over there somewhere.' Confused, we sent Ma out to get some proper directions (hey - I was driving! Blame the others for sending the old woman out into the cold while they stayed tucked up nice and warm!*) and she came back with the information that we were now leaving from further down the coast a little way, just outside a hotel. So off we went, only to decide swiftly that the directions we'd been given had to be horsecrap. The sea isn't deep enough at that point to allow a ferry to dock, and nor was there any sign of activity. Ma hopped out again and tried to ask at the crappy hotel, only to be looked at blankly by some specky oik who could only bellow "trainee! Trainee!" at her. So back we went to the ferry terminal, and found the ferry docked snugly at the South Pier rather than the north. What the hell?? We'd been sent on a total wild goose chase by a ferry official who was clearly either a) making mischief, b) totally clueless or c) taking mushrooms.

Anway, we managed to get on the ferry at last and the crossing was swift and easy. Our first port of call was the Citadel, which Fisher and I begged pardon and excused ourselves from visiting again owing to the fact we've both seen it more than enough times. Ma, Lu and Arrow went off while Fisher and I found a tiny bar/café called Bellusa, with one solitary table on the street which we grabbed. I then had a truly excellent cup of coffee, and we were entertained by the jovial, rotund propriator who, when I complimented the coffee, bellowed:

"Ah! Bellusa! Remember the name, Madam!"

So I have.

We were joined in a surprisingly short time by Ma, who'd discovered you now have to pay to get into the cathedral in the Citadel as well now, and had no desire to do so, so we sat and chatted while waiting for Arrow and Lu. When they joined us, it transpired they'd been buffetted beyond belief by the wind on the battlements but had enjoyed the marvellous views over the island.

Next stop was Ggantija, where the largest copper-age temples sit on a hilltop overlooking the wieds and ridges of Gozo. I found them less inspiring than Mnajdra, possibly for the silly reason that the stone is very ordinary looking, rather than the beautiful honeyed tones of Mnajdra and Hagar Qim. There are two temples side by side, making up one large jumble of stones, and both are in rough '8' shapes. The stones are impressively huge, and I can't imagine how they were hefted into place.

Temples checked off the list, we went in search of lunch and found a deeply uninspiring place in - I think - Xaghra, where I had glutinous spaghetti with rabbit sauce. We stayed only as long as it took to gulp it down, then drove the the Azure Window and Inland Sea. There, pushing our way through hosts of SCUBA divers who come to enjoy the best diving in the Med, we bought a 15 minute pootle on a boat which took us through the Inland Sea's tunnel and out to open water. Because we were in the lea of the wind the water was calm, and we bobbed gently by the great cliffs, enjoying beautiful sunshine and looking at the bright purple and red coral clinging to the waterline. After a look at the Azure Window from the sea side and a couple of caves, we took in Fungus Rock, where a rare fungus grows which the Knights guarded jealously because they thought it had excellent medical benefits, and then returned to the dock. It was a short trip, but for LM1.50 it was well worth it, if only to see the glee on Fisher's face at being out on the water again.

Time was advancing remorselessly, so off we went again, this time to the north. A steep drive took us to the Gordan Lighthouse and beautiful views. After drinking our fill of the sun sinking over the island we set off again. Lu had a geocache she wanted to seek out, which - after an enjoyable hunt - we found down a narrow, rocky path overlooking the lighthouse from the village of Zebbug. This achieved, we finished our Gozo trip with a tour by car of the north, taking in the ancient salt pans at Marsalforn before chasing the sun back to the ferry terminal.

Unfortunately, we had a very long wait for a ferry as the one we'd hoped to catch took only 2 trucks - presumably carrying hazardous materials - and we had to wait over an hour for the next one. It was therefore dark as we crossed the water, so no sunset views, and we were pretty hungry by the time we arrived. Again we foreswore Bobbyland and went instead to Mgarr for rabbit - at Il-Barri restaurant, which harbours the WWII shelters beneath.

The rabbit was excellent - much better than Bobbyland - and I'll take all visitors there in future. Arrow, Ma and I had the traditional casserole - which they called fenkata on the menu - while Lu went for a rabbit stew filled with such delights as pork belly to add flavour. Delicious! Arrow said it wasn't what he expected, and he also had a nasty scare thinking there were almonds in it - but luckily they turned out to be thinly sliced bits of garlic, which did indeed look alarmingly like almonds!

I've always thought fenkata was actually a whole rabbit feast, with spaghetti and rabbit sauce to start it off, followed by the rabbit stew, and then a pudding made of rabbit ice cream.

Ok, not the pudding - but the rest of it's true, and it's what Ma thought as well. I imagine they call the rabbit dish on the menu fenkata for tourist ease - but who cares? I thought it was great, and a terrific way to end our Gozo trip.

*Anyone who's actually met my mother knows that portraying her as some ancient, decrepit crone is laughable.

Malta IV

My memory is starting to fail me, which serves me right for not being more dilligent with my blogging, but my parents' computer is so clapped out and aged it takes about 45 minutes to actually connect with t'internet, so I did what I could tolerate.

I believe, on Monday, we went to Birgu - one of the ancient 3 Cities. It was renamed Vittoriosa by the Knights after the famous siege - a pointless exercise the Maltese have never embraced. They've ignored the renaming since 1565, and I can't see it catching on now. In fact, the same is true for each of the 3 Cities. Senglea was named Citta Invicta, and Bormia became Cospicua - but again, nobody actually calls them by anything but their original, Maltese names.

Birgu, Bormia and Senglea merge together across the harbour from Valletta, making a beautiful network of ancient streets through which to wander in peace. We parked in Birgu and found ourselves a nice little café restaurant on the waterfront called the Tate café, which served huge salads and - in Arrow's case - a vast pile of fried things: onion rings the size of the average head, potato wedges, mozzarella sticks and chips. I eyed my plate of Maltese water crackers, Gozitan cheese, sun dried tomatoes, begilla (a paste of lima beans, garlic and ... er ... other stuff) and Maltese bread with reproach. However, the begilla was delicious and I was well pleased.

After lunch we enjoyed a wander through the streets we'd previously enjoyed in the flicker of candle light, and made our way to the Inquisitor's Palace, which was built in the sixteenth century as law courts and then overtaken at the end of that century by the first Inquisitor. It's been developed over the centuries into a palace, and now consists of several fascinating rooms around the traditionaly courtyard. It's well worth a visit, if only to experience a portrayal of the Inquisition that is really rather unique. As Arrow succinctly put it:

"The Inquisition! It's like your favourite uncle!"

Apparantly, they're much maligned over issues such as torture. According to Malta Heritage, they only ever tortured people for half an hour at a time, and there was always a doctor present - so that's all right then!

We had a jolly good nosey around, taking in the cells, the Inquisitor's rooms and more. Especially fun is the Inquisitor's receiving room, with its two doors - one of ordinary size for the man himself, and one half its height, so anyone entering had to bend almost double in supplication. Couple that with the infuriating blurb beneath a picture of Mary, which talks of how she is the epitome of womanhood because she's humble, pure in virginity, and speaks only 3 times in the bible, and I wasn't left with any desire to convert.

After Birgu, I found myself wilting with tiredness and everyone was happy enough to wander up to Fort St Angelo for a look at the mighty defences, and then head home. We'd planned a trip to Bobbyland, which is an old RAF outpost converted into a restaurant on Dingli Cliffs, where you can eat good rabbit. However, as it was pitch dark and very windy I recommended we leave it til another day, when we had time to watch the sunset - which is really all Bobbyland is good for. Everyone agreed, so after letting Fisher freeze her non-nadgers off with a swim, we went out to St Julian's and enjoyed an excellent meal at the San Giulliano - which is Sister's favourite restaurant. It does have a fantastic view across St Julian's Bay, being set out on a covered verandah so you have all the benefits of dining outside with none of the weather problems! And there would have been many problems, because the wind had really picked up. Waves dashed impressively against the coast walls, and all the boats in the harbour bobbed like corks. It was a fantastic backdrop and a lovely meal. Arrow and Lu gave me a copy of The Dastardly Book for Dogs, which I then spent too long giggling over and had to be scolded by Fisher into actually paying attention to our companions.

After supper we had a wander round the corner and up some steps to look over the wild bay and aid digestion, before heading home.

Oh yes - it happened to be my birthday (hence the Dastardly Book for Dogs), so I received texts from Blarney, Spartan, F*Wit, Meeper and TA Girl. Koios and Pro actually sent a card, which didn't arrive on time (thanks to the crappy postal strike) and Phid texted me the next day - so I felt very chuffed and fond of my friends. I was especially moved because Blarney actually "sang" Happy Birthday down the phone to me, but was cut off by my answerphone running out of space. She then sent an indignant text asking whether it had been me cutting her off, which I was happy to deny. Although that would have been bloody funny.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Malta III

And so to Sunday, when all the shops in Malta are shut and everything always used to close down dead. But progress has reached this small isle, for better or worse, and Malta Heritage is canny enough to realise that a great deal of business can be (mis?)begotten on the Sabbath. Ma was free to join us for at least some of the morning, so we headed straight off to the neolithic temples of Mnaijdra and Hagar Qim, which never fail to impress me, despite the numerous times I've visited.

The days of being able to happily scramble amongst the rocks are - sensibly - gone, and now you must walk soberly between marked walkways, gazing at the ancient rocks and their dimpled decoration. The fat lady, who once used to greet you as you explored amongst the rocks, now stands in the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta - which is a shame, but, again, probably sensible.

Mnaijdra stands at the top of the hill - a large, circular jumble of pale yellow stone which seem at first glance to be haphazardly bundled together. But once you pass through the first doorway you're quickly introduced to the complexity of the structure, with its many rooms, doorways, and what seem to be altars or tables. Nobody knows what its purpose was, but that it's a place of spiritual significance for the neolithic people of Malta is surely certain? It stands facing the tiny rock-island of Filfla, with the second temple of Hagar Qim making up the third point of a triangle. It's a stunning location, and the sheer size and weight of some of the stones used to make up the walls proves the levels of commitment undertaken by the builders. This was no small undertaking!

After Mnaijdra we walked down the long path to Hagar Qim at the bottom of the hill. Ma had to leave us there as she had a lunch engagement, but she suggested we looked at the natural cisterns not far from the temples. This we did, walking a few hundred yards uphill over scrubby rocks, past several bird-hunters' lairs, and following a stone wall to its end. There we saw a patch of pale rock with several holes, forming natural wells. It doesn't sound like much, and indeed I can't say I was overwhelmed by the sight, but everyone else was quite intrigued - so it was worth the walk.

It was time for a bite to eat, I thought, and being not far from Ghar Lapsi, I drove us to the Blue Creek restaurant overlooking the pretty, rocky cove with its natural swimming pool and caves. We had a good lunch, then a brief paddle. Fisher was sorely tempted to swim in the surprisingly balmy sea, but refrained as she had no spare clothing (and I refrained from evilly shoving her in - a temptation I should be rewarded for resisting, as it would have been soooo easy!).

I suggested we take a trip up to Mgarr and see if we could go to the World War II bunker beneath a restaurant by the church. This was accepted as a notion (not much is rejected), so off we tootled. The countryside of Malta is such a joy in comparison to the repulsive, built-up areas, and I'm glad I'm alive to enjoy it before the ignorant government build over it all and destroy what remaining charm there is on this island. We drove through a serious shower before arriving at Mgarr, only to find the shelter closed. Undeterred, we went instead to Gnejna - a pretty little beach, almost empty of people at such an unfashionable hour and off season. The sea here was almost flat, so wookie-hole (an undercut rock where the sea makes a very satisfying booming noise and sprays out great gouts of water when it's rough) was almost silent. We sat, looked, enjoyed, and then headed home to a simple supper of bits, The Really Nasty Horse Racing Game, Mandarin, and bed.

Malta II

And so dawned day three - our second full day - and I rather wished it hadn't, because not only had I the irritating sniffles from air conditioning, but a seriously unpleasant migraine that kept me motionless until noon. By then I was so bored with my room I decided I'd rather put up with the discomfort and go out than continue to try and combat it through sleep. Anyway, it was considerably better than it had been so up I got, and out we went. I was sorry to have wasted a morning of Lu and Arrow's holiday, so was determined to make up for it with a trip to Mdina, Rabat and beyond.

Mdina is truly one of my favourite places. The Silent City lives up to its name, and tiny Arabic streets curve between honey coloured houses, which cluster behind the great walls like nervous children behind their mother's skirts. We headed straight to the ramparts, there to look over Malta lying beneath, overgrown with cramped white houses. It's sad to see, when I remember it so interspersed with countryside. Now there are too many cars stinking the atmosphere, too many new houses built despite a plethora of empty buildings - new and old - too much tourism and too much rubbish. Still, it's a pretty view if you haven't got history to tarnish it, and I refrained from turning into my father and spoiling the moment by bitching.

We walked back down the main street and were going to have a look at the Palazzo - but the extortionate price sent us scurrying away. (Actually, it's not that expensive but we're doing things on a shoestring so it didn't seem worth it at the time.) Next we headed to the cathedral, where I looked forward to seeing my old friends the bronze cannons, which have always stood outside the cathedral and which I used to sit on, religiously, after each trip to my nursery school. Entrance into the cathedral has always been free, so I was glad to be taking us on such a cheap day out.

Alas! Not only did we discover you now have to PAY to get into the cathedral (they get round it by saying you're paying to get into both the cathedral and its museum) , but they've taken my cannons away! I was utterly livid. I don't think I've ever taken a trip to Mdina in my life without at least patting those cannons. : ( And as for the charge to get into the cathedral - what if you just want to go in and pray? Are they seriously telling people they have to fork out LM2.00 (about £3.50) in order to pay their obeisances to the lord? Ok, so I'm not religious myself, but there are plenty of people who visit churches who are, and I think it's a bit bloody rich to go round titheing them!

I'm starting to understand the birth of protestantism a bit better now.

It was all a bit disappointing from my perspective, but luckily Lu and Arrow didn't seem to find much amiss. I decided the only way to salvage anything was to take them to the Mdina Dungeons - a sight much ignored in guide books, and which I've thoroughly enjoyed in the past owing to its utter dreadfulness. It's supposed to be a Chamber of Horrors type place, but I recalled only crude waxworks, such as might be moulded by a three year old with one arm, of French soldiers with the plague, accompanied by a tape recorded scream which, once played, would then audibly rewind (faint backwards scream) before playing again.

Genius. I loved it.

L&A were keen to experience such laughable delights, so we payed our LM1.72 and vanished down the stone steps into the dank underground.

In some ways, it was a severe disappointment, because they've improved the Mdina Dungeon no end. The waxworks are no longer utterly rubbish, but - in most cases - tolerably good, and certainly graphic enough to illustrate the horrors on show! The subject matter is intentionally repulsive, covering all the graphic methods of punishing criminals in Malta throughout the ages, starting with a waxwork of St Agatha having her breast removed. (She actually looked more like she was singing opera than screaming in agony, but point taken). Most distressing were the punishments inflicted on leaders of a slave rebellion, who were literally ripped apart bit by bit, their flesh plucked off their bones by red hot pincers.

So that was delightfully gruesome, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Afterwards we were in need of some refreshment, and went to trusty old Cafe Fiorentina, which surprised my by being neither surly or slow. I had ftira (traditional Maltese bread - like a large roll) with tomato and tuna, which was disappointingly soggy. The coffee was fine, though, and as it was this I needed most of all, I had no cause for complaint. It's a spectacular spot, anyway, being tucked up against the bastions, and people really only go there for the view.

After fortifying ourselves, we got back into the car and headed into Rabat in search of St Paul's Catacombs. You should really do both St Paul's Catacombs and St Agatha's Crypt, as the crypt is just opposite and its frescoes are worth a look - but L&A's canny budgeting meant we chose the more extensive Catacombs.

When I was last there with Blarney and co, it was a case of 'buy your ticket and off you go' which was great, albeit a little confusing! The catacombs are a regular warren, and we spent a happy hour exploring, getting lost, going back on ourselves and not having the faintest idea of what we were looking at. Now it's been turned into a proper attraction, so you have an audio guide and little numbers telling you which recording to listen to and when. It's ok. Valeria, the 'ghost guide' is a seriously irritating bint who waffles unmercifully about irrelevancies, but when she actually gets round to a fact it's quite interesting. Otherwise, the true delight is in the spectacular preservation of these tombs, from little cot-sized niches for dead infants to great, covered tombs for wealthy adults. There are circular tables carved into the stone where mourners would have their funeral meal, and several little holes for oil lamps. Decoration is all but non existant, having long since worn away, but here and there are little patches of red ochre which Valeria seemed pretty sure meant something. Who am I to question a ghost?

A drawback was the loud, obnoxious Essex family, with their two children Wayne and Shannon (nope, that's not a joke), who insisted on shouting their way round the catacomb, completely incapable of working the audio guides or following the numbers, and very vocal about ... well, everything, really. At once point they were laughing over something and a Frenchman said:

"Ah, c'est tres amusant, non?"

At which the fat father yelled:

"English! English!" at him and walked off. How proud we felt to be British. Still, we four had a nice, snooty bonding moment all bitching about them and their dreadfulness, so that was nice.

Once we'd seen our fill of the excellent catacombs, we headed off to Buskett Gardens via Clapham Junction - which is where a) several mysterious 'cart ruts' from the neolithic period all run into each other and b) there is a geocache. It's really just a big, rocky field with great wheel-ruts criss crossing it, but the mystery comes from the fact the wheel hadn't been invented at that point, and nobody knows where they were going and why. Several of them lead off cliffs, some appear across the sea bed, and nobody has the faintest idea what caused them. We spent a very pleasant time theorising, wandering amongst the wild fennel and thyme, and seeking out the geocache before heading off to Buskett where Fisher wanted to go for a run.

To be honest, Buskett ain't all that. It's peaceful, cool and you get a good view of the Verdala Palace, where the Prime Minister has his summer home, but otherwise it's not worth a visit - unless you're dead keen on olive trees. Still, it was a nice enough wander, and Fisher got a run our of her system. I've decided I'm taking a week off and damn the consequences. When I get back I'll really knuckle down, but I can't be ARSED at the moment.

We then pootled home because we were being taken out for supper by Ma and Pa to The Lord Nelson in Mosta, which is a pub-like place from the outside, but a restaurant inside. The food was tolerable, but anyone who had fish was sadly disappointed, and it's definitely a hang out for ex-pats, because we were kept up to date with the rugby match going on between England and France by some extremely excitable women on the opposite table.

Anyway, it was all fine, and we went home stuffed to collapse into bed ... after a game of Mandarin!

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Greetings from Semi-Sunny Malta!

So here we are again, enjoying the delights of my the 'rents house in Malta - this time with Arrow and Lu for company. We had to fly from different airports but, oddly enough, we arrived at much the same time so that was handy.

It was a beautiful afternoon, so after settling into the house we prevailed upon Ma to take us for a drive so we could enjoy the sunset. She took us down through Gharghur and into a wied (valley) beyond, before dropping down to the coast road and then back up along the Victoria Lines - which is a cutting across the entire island, built by the knights to enable people from the north to seek shelter in the fortified south.

It was a delightful drive, followed by a simple meal at home and then Mandarin (Fisher seems as intent on becoming as psychotic over this game as Blarney) before bed.

The following day I'd hoped to be up by 9.30, but the long journey of the day before obviously knocked me out and it wasn't until an hour later that I descended for breakfast, which was laid out for us under the vine. Everyone else was already there, nibbling Maltese bread with its thick, black crust and listening as my father regaled them with stories about how awful Malta is, how badly it's all gone wrong, and how local thieves recently stole animals from a special needs school and bludgeoned a deer to death. He stormed off when I objected to listening to such things over breakfast, and I can't say I was entirely sorry.

Ma was desirous of seeing the Caravaggio exhibition that's on at St John's Co-Cathedral at the moment, and as the cathedral itself is a must-see for any tourist on the island, we were all happy to go into Valletta with her. We were dropped at the Upper Barakka Gardens at the top of Valletta while she parked the car in the underground car park (and took a little electric taxi into town - a new addition to public transport that seems wonderful to me. It cost her 45c) and we were lucky enough to arrive at noon. While this meant the place was heaving with tourists, it also meant we'd got there just in time for the firing of the 12 o'clock gun. This is an elaborate affair, involving four men dressed as gunners, in beige uniforms with those white helmets, marching about at bit before priming, loading and firing the cannon over the Grand Harbour. It made an impressive noise and belched a small flame from the barrell, so all the squealing tourists were most pleased - and the passing cruise ship also benefitted.

The Upper Barakka Gardens have little to say for themselves save the view over the harbour, which is delightful and well worth seeing. You peer over the old three cities, so beleagured over the years (having been bombed to buggery during WWII, and also during the great siege of 1565), and watch great cruise ships glide effortlessly through what is one of the deepest natural harbours in the world. Having done that, though, you may as well head off, as the gardens themselves are tiny and only the briefest tour is needed.

We went straight to St John's and paid LM2.50 to get in (around £4) which I thought reasonable. The cathedral is truly spectacular, albeit dark and a little opressive. Thousands of gilt Maltese crosses cover the walls like a swarm of butterflies, and ornate scroll work - some of it recently cleaned by 'the Italians' (which Italians I do not know) - shines on the arches. The Caravaggios are in an adjoining chapel, and while I've seen the two that are there permanently, I was excited to see the rest of the exhibition.

Cheek and charlatanery! The 'rest of the exhibition' proved to be a single, solitary painting of one of the knights - which is extremely wonderful, but hardly makes an exhibition! There are several other paintings on display, all of them dreadful and none of them Caravaggios. The other Caravaggios, it transpires, are being displayed at the National Museum of somethingorother, and we'd have to pay again to get in! Cheek! Bald faced cheek! I was most annoyed.

Fisher, Ma and I left Arrow and Lu to some extra wandering and went to wait for them at the open-air cafe Cordina in the nearby square. Then Ma left us to find some lunch and do more exploring while she went back home.

Our first desire was to grab some lunch, so I chose a restaurant that sounded suitable from Lu's guide book and led us off - only to have the sky open and great torrents fall from it. We sheltered in various doorways before deciding our hardy Scots natures should allow us to brave the storm. We got considerably drenched, especially as it turned out that the restaurant we wanted was full, so we had to walk all the way back onto Republic Street, down to the Grand Master's Palace, and find a wee place just opposite. It turned out to be a bit of a master stroke, as it was atmospherically placed in a cellar setting, and the food was excellent. I had lampouki in lemon butter, and was well pleased with my lot.

After lunch we went to the Palace, to be told by the ticket woman that we 'didn't have time' to do both the armoury and the palace, but had to choose only one. None of us thought to ask how the hell she knew how long we'd take over each one, so instead Arrow and I went to the armoury and Fisher and Lu to the palace.

I really love the armoury! It's full to the brim with all the paraphernalia of medieval and eraly modern warfare: swords, muskets, pikes, cannons, armour and crossbows. Many of the muskets are beautifully decorated, as are the swords, while all are repulsively practical and extremely macabre. The hooks on the pikes, designed to better pull cavaliers off their horses, are especially ominous.

After some 45 minutes of gazing at the weaponry, we met up again with Fisher and Lu, who'd both enjoyed the Palace - Fisher being esecially surprised by how pretty it is. I remember the tapestries, of which Malta Heritage is so proud, being rather vile depictions of Caribbean scenes - but I seem to be in the minority. Everyone else finds them colourful and charming, so fair play.

Our last stop was a wander down to Fort St Elmo, where we were picked up by Ma and returned home. Fisher swam 100 lengths, despite it being pretty dam' chilly, putting me to shame, and then we ate mince and pasta, read, relaxed and played yet more Mandarin - a truly addictive game. Ma was out at a church fashion show ("And now we have Myrtle Grungefuttock, modelling our latest beige cardigan and tweed skirt, complete with biscuit crumbs and tea stain ...") and when she came back she told us that Birgu was all lit up by candles and we should nip out and have a look. So we did.

It was lovely. Birgu - one of the 3 Cities on the other side of the Grand Harbour to Valletta - was honouring the second world war by turning off all the electric lighting and putting candles along the streets and in house windows. It was very beautiful, with all the little, winding streets flickering in the light of red-gold flames. We wandered along, accompanied by the blare of a band from the town square, and smirked patronisingly over the occasionally appalling (and boy do I mean appalling) lead singers, all of whom seemed to be Britney Spears-a-likes, and one of whom couldn't have hit the right note if it was a barn door at two paces. It was also puzzling that the backing band was dressed in Napoleonic military uniform.

In the square, all the traditional food and drink stalls had been set up, albeit without the nougat and halva stalls that grace the festas, and I bought Arrow and Fisher a plastic cup of wine. It was Marsovin, so good Maltese fayre, and it certainly tasted like it. The good thing was that, for 50c, you got a full plastic cup the size of about a 3rd of a bottle. As I was driving I had only a few sips, in order to cleanse the top of my palette of most of its skin.

We wandered, took in the Grand Harbour at night and admired some of the yachts and luxury boats moored in the marina. Then, having enjoyed ourselves not immoderately, we hopped back in the car and went home.

Thus ended our first full day in Malta.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Fun Cycle

Just got back from a lovely bike ride, accompanying Fisher on her 9 mile run. It was a beautiful day, perfect for exercise, being clear but cloudy with a fine breeze. I must say, I really enjoyed not worrying about time, pushing myself, or doing anything other than just getting round the course.

It turned out to be quite a good workout anyway. Naturally not a patch on Fisher's effort, but the hills required some serious effort. Quarry Road is a bitch! It's bad enough running, but on a bike it's much worse. There were around 5 or 6 hills at the start of the course, so it was a good test for my lungs and legs, and I was quite pleased with how I tackled them. Then I got to regain my breath as Fisher caught up, so it was all quite relaxed.

The course is beautiful: up over the rolling hills that surround us, with views out to Dundee and the fields a patchwork of green, and pale gold stubble. Then we headed down a long hill to the junction with the main road, where I stopped off at a little shop in search of a gift for Janus (no joy) before catching Fisher up again. We had some trouble with swarms of little flies, and I got several in my eyes while Fisher had a couple drowing in the sweat of her brow. Niiice. Then we had a noisy but along the main road before heading into the homeward stretch.

I'm really tired now, but I'm not sure how justified that is! It was only 9 miles on a bike, taking it very easy - but there were those hills as well, so maybe it's not surprising I feel like having a nice long snooze.

Tomorrow I must get my costume finished off for Janus's birthday party. I also have to pick up her gift. I know what I'm getting her (well, it's a toss-up between 2 things) and I'm pretty sure I've decided ... but I may yet change my mind.

Ag. Bored myself.

I'm off for a lovely soak in the bath.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Bike Ride

Well, today was beautiful: sunny and warm, with all the fields glowing in the light. It was perfect for a cycle, so when Fisher headed into St Andrews for a run, I took the bike. I thought I'd cycle to the Leisure Centre, then jump into the pool for some laps.

Fat chance.

It was awful. I did 8 miles in 49 minutes, which is around 6.20 mins a mile. Terrible, terrible, terrible. The wind was blowing in my face the whole way and I just found it all unbearably tedious, not to mention exhausting. When I arrived in St Andrews it was to see Fisher puffing along the path above East Sands, looking boot faced. It turns out she was having a terrible time of it, as well - and then I remembered we'd both only eaten two bits of toast all day. I really hope that makes a big difference.

Anyway, there was no way I was going to get into the pool after that debacle of knackeredness, so we went to Morrisons, got supper, and came home. Morrisons is terrible! The only thing I like about it is the fish counter. Everything else is just poor - especially the fruit and veg.

Anyway, I'm now feeling tired, grumpy, and a bit silly, too. I had my first fall today, you see - and it wasn't in any way dramatic, glamorous, or anyone else's fault. Boo. I just cycled up to the top of the rise outside our house, lost my balance, and rode into a hawthorn bush. I then fell off. I have some impressive-looking but actually superficial scratches on the back of my hand, and a tiny pinprick where a bloody great thorn impaled my finger. It bled profusely, making the bike handle all sticky and gross, but looks like nothing! Where's the justice? It's reeeeeally sore!!


Anyway, I'm all tucked up at home now, listening to Jeff Buckley as I type and getting ready for a big, deep, soaky bath before watching Spurs get trounced by Villa (doubtless).

Ooh looky. A glass. And it's half empty.