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.


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