Monday, 15 October 2007

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!