February 17, 21 – Balzan, Malta

Bob, Caroline and Tarja arrived in Malta yesterday afternoon to a sunny but very windy day which made it feel very cool. Our cab driver had a bit of a challenge finding the house based on the address. Bob finally got out to look, good thing as the entrance is around the corner in a lovely little square, not on the street itself. The house is just as advertised on ‘homeaway’. There is a little convenience store with wonderful looking baked goods just a short block away so after choosing our bedrooms we picked up a few basics plus wine, which of course is a basic!

Our landlady had left us a starter kit of white wine, – yea, a lovely Italian Gavi, – a large loaf of bread, there was milk, cheese, ham and butter in the fridge. On the counter was a large basket of oranges and lemons from her garden and one of kitchen cabinets had basics like, oil, vinegar, salt & pepper, rice, pasta, instant coffee, teabags, and tomato sauce which I’m sure was left over from previous tenants. There are also lots of cleaning supplies and toilet paper. We found the same in the Air B&B we stayed at in Amsterdam. However, the houses we’ve rented in Florida had no food whatso ever. I think that is because of the paranoia in the US about being sued.

It was quite cool in the house but one of the things we made sure about the place we rented was that it has heat. We figured there would be some cool days. Each room in the house has a large wall unit that provides both heat & cool air. After a bit of trial and error we figured it out how to use the units but also are making sure we keep the room doors closed to the cool hallway. The house is on three levels linked by an attractive but challenging circular stairway.

Stairwell with very shiny steps.

The restaurant we scoped out for dinner was closed to the public due to a private function so we asked for recommendation on where to eat neaby. We were tired and hungry having been up for 25 hours at this point, none of us took naps once we got here. The fellow said the “clubs” do a good pizza and pasta and pointed to one right near them. And yes, the place had excellent pizza, along with a bottle of Gavi for about $18. We’ve had a similar Gavi at a restaurant in Kingston costing in the mid $40s. We have no idea what kind of club this was but the room we were in had lots of large shields. We were the only people there at first, it was around 6:40pm but lots of people arrived about an hour later. We saw people going into the church near the restaurant, Saturday mass, and we’re pretty sure the people that arrived after us came from church. I’ll have to find out what these clubs are all about. We all went to bed as soon as we got back from dinner.

February 18, 2019 – Balzan, Malta

Yesterday was our first full day in Malta and we made the most of it. Bob scoped out the route to the large grocery store, it was only about an 8-10 minute walk. We got well provisioned and after lunch at home we started out for the San Anton Gardens which are quite close to us. Unfortunately about halfway there we turned right when we should have turned left and ended up walking a bit further than we planned. Google maps on Bob’s phone is getting a good workout.

The gardens were lovely. There were all kinds of birds including ducks, peacocks, swans, both black and white, lots of turtles in one pond and parrots in large cages. There were a lot of orange trees full of fruit, we wondered who, if anyone, picks the fruit. It’s a bit early for a lot of flowers to be in bloom yet but I’m sure the gardens will be spectacular in a couple more months.

We went to dinner at the place we tried to go to last night. The food was good but was mostly sandwiches and salads with two mains specials, lasagna and chili. The building was interesting, and we think quite old so we were surprized the menu was not more extensive. We were sitting upstairs and of course no one else was there but by the time we left the place, upstairs and down were packed.

Today we took a very meandering bus to Naxxar where we visited the Palazzo Parisio, a Maltese stately home, it was pretty stately! The very large gardens were fabulous. A large orangerie and what looked like recently planted rows on pansies all over. This is perfect weather for pansies.

We then walked for about half an hour, mostly downhill, to Mosta where the main site is the Church of Santa Marija Assunta that has the fourth largest unsupported dome in Europe. The dome is stunning and very catholic with all its many statues of Mary and Jesus. Malta was very heavily bombed during WW2 and there was a bomb shelter just outside the church. It’s now open to the public and had had a lot of good photos from when the shelter was in use. Malta was a very strategic place for the allies to hold on to after Hitler and Mussolini joined forces. The pictures included a visit from Churchill during the was and the Maltese people were awarded the George Cross for their bravery and efforts during the war.

We had a big lunch in Mosta so we’ll be grazing at home for dinner, we’ve got lots of wine, cheese, cold meats, picks up some nice cakes for dessert – life is good. The last two days have been sunny, not much wind, so 14C temps are great for walking.

February 19, 2019 – Balzan, Malta

We took the bus to Valetta, the capital of Malta today. It was a bouncy 30 minute ride and we were even in traffic congestion for part of the trip. There was one large cruise ship in the harbour but in general the main area was not congested. The architecture is a an interesting combination of very old and quite new. Their opera house was bombed during the war and a decision was made to rebuild it but without the roof and walls. I guess an opera in Malta can be “called due to rain”. I’m assuming the stuff that looks like plywood is in fact sound baffles.

Rebuilt opera house – sans walls and roof

The highlight, of the day, as far as over-the-top goes, was St John’s Co-Cathedral. It was the church of the Knights of St John for 200 years. It was completed in 1577 and has a very plain outside. The inside was also quite plain until the 17th century when the Grand Master Cotoner ordered it to be redecorated. They went wild, it is the most wildly baroque church I’ve seen as you will gather from the pictures. The side chapels were dedicated to the eight chapters of the Knights and their Grand Masters often had huge tombstones in the chapels. I’ve never seen so much gilded decoration in a church. The floor of the whole church is inlaid marble and stone composed of tombstones. I guess that’s why skulls feature prominently in most of them. There is also artwork in the cathedral by Caravaggio, one being a huge painting of the beheading of John the Baptist. It was originally an altar piece but is now in a separate room with a few more of his works.

Part of the main altar and one of the side chapels on the right

Tomb stone

Side altars

We then meandered away from the Main Street to find a place for lunch and lucked out. There was a nice outdoor patio near the water and a table in the sun. It took a while for our food to arrive so unfortunately by the time it arrived the sun had moved, as it does – and we had to put jackets back on but it was still warm enough to stay outdoors.

Caroline and Bob in the sun

After lunch we followed the street the runs along the waterfront and ran into a small wedding that was being held in a park. Very interesting, the bridesmaids wore traditional dresses but with what looked like fancy army boots. The bride, who was dressed somewhat traditionally, wore similar shoes – go figure.

Check out the shoes!

We had hoped to see a 45 minute film about Malta but when we got to the location it would have been a 50 minute wait so since we plan to spend another day in Valetta, we’ll check out the show times and get there accordingly.

We’re back at our house now and plan to go out for dinner to a local restaurant recommended by our landlady.

February 20, 2019 – Balzan, Malta

The day started out well, we read the forecast, 16C and sunny so we dutifully left out a layer of our usual tops/jackets. We got the local bus to Mdina, almost. The bus driver was no help so we ended up going past our stop and had to walk back, but it wasn’t very far. The clouds rolled in quite soon after we arrived and we wished we hadn’t dumped those layers.

We found the main gate of Mdina quite easily, the walkway leading to it goes over an impressive moat.

Main gate to Mdina

People still live in Mdina. The architecture of the city was beautiful. I’d like to think it was a much livelier place several hundred years ago when it perhaps wasn’t quite so pristine and lifeless. I find it challenging to define why we were disappointed, perhaps it was the lifelessness which I suppose gives it the quality of its nickname, the Silent City. Or we were just all cranky because we were cold !

One of the many beautiful doors in Mdina

Carolyn and Bob walking along a typical side street in Mdina

We saw a 30 minutes film on the history of Mdina which was a bit dated from a production point of view but provided excellent historical information. The auditorium in which we saw the film was freezing – there seems to be a bit of a theme here.

Looking north toward the Mediterranean from the ramparts

There were great views of the surrounding land as far as the Mediterranean from the ramparts. Those Romans, Normans and Knights sure knew how to build and maintain fortified cities.

It was lunch time after the movie so we went to a restaurant in Rabat recommend by friend Terry who had been there a couple of years ago. Excellent food, Caroline finally got to eat rabbit, which we gather is a national dish. We could have done without the non-stop Ed Sheeran music but hey, you can’t have everything, at least it wasn’t really loud.

After lunch we headed to the St Agatha Catacombs, at least we thought we did. A bit more backtracking ensued and we did find it eventually. Bob chose it over the St. Pau’s Catacombs, a good decision. The visit was with a guide, apparently the St. Paul’s one is not and there is no audio guide there either. The tour took about 20 minutes and we saw example of single graves, family graves, graves of the well off and the poor. There were also some well preserved frescoes. You had to do some major ducking wondering around the tunnels, Bob managed to bang his head once – but lightly. There was also a museum of sorts on the property. It had interesting artifacts from as far back as the Roman period but it was obvious that the museum was a labour of love and probably not particularly well funded.

We easily caught the bus back and of course when we got off, all we could see was the sun and blue sky.

February 21, 201 – Balzan

Another bus adventure. It all began with a late bus and a runaway puppy. Today we were going back to Valletta so could catch the bus just outside our house. It was a few minutes late and just before it came around the corner the cute little dog from the house across the square “escaped” as its owner was cleaning around their front door. Luckily it ran right up to us to say hello and I was able to grab it and return it to its owner. I ran, if I can call what I do these days running, for the bus, Bob and Caroline were already on it. This was our second bus trip to Valletta and after about 15 minutes we started to think this does not look familiar. We looked up at the display at the front of the bus and yup, we were not heading to Valletta. Bob checked with the driver and our best course of action was just to stay on the bus as he was circling back to our stop and then heading to Valletta.

We had timed getting the bus to coincide with the 11am showing of a movie about Valletta bus since we missed it we went to the Grand Master’s (Knights of St John) Palace first. Part of the palace were being renovated so there were spots where wall frescoes were covered and ceiling fresco pieces were removed. Lots of painting in the reception rooms which were hard to see as you could only stand it the doorways of many of the rooms – pretty dumb we thought.

Hallway in Grand Master’s Palace

They could have roped off the centre of the room to spare the rug and put runners around the edges so you could walk inside the room. There were objects being described in the audio guide that you couldn’t see at all. The main meeting room of the Knights was covered in beautiful very large tapestries from the 18th century but the room was barely lit so many were hard to see except for the ones near the door way. I’m sure this is done for conservation purposes but I have seen tapestries that were just as old displayed so that you could see them better. End of grumbling – almost.

Several of the rooms in the palace are used today by the president for formal occasions such as greeting diplomats Continue reading “February 21, 201 – Balzan”

February 22, 2019 – Balzan (Gozo day)

Full day today. Caught the 9:15 bus from the stop that is about an 8 minute walk from the house. It was a one hour ride to the ferry at the northern tip of the island. The ferry trip was 25 minutes. It’s was a sunny day, high 15C but quite windy so good thing we were well layered. We bought hop on hop off tickets on the ferry and made sure we got off right away to get inside seats on the tour bus. It would have been very cool to sit on the open top, we preferred warmth to upper deck views.

Caroline & Bob on the ferry to Gozo

We got off at Victoria, the capital city of Gozo, with a sort of plan to look at the sites, have lunch, and then continue on the bus. The Citadel ended up being our only stop in Victoria. Some of the ruins of old houses inside the Citadel, date back to the 1200s. The Knights reinforced the walls in the 1500s. We decided not to pay to see the cathedral. Once you’ve seen St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta it’s impossible to top. We do go into “free” churches. ?.

View from Citadel ramparts

Very old house remains inside the Castile

Lace making, the old traditional way, there was a video of how the spools were used, amazing

After walking around and visiting a museum we left to look for lunch but decided that in the interest of time and the bus schedule, we’d grab something we could eat while waiting for the bus and continued onto Dwejra, the most westerly point of Gozo. The sea was beautiful, Bob figured that based on the whitecaps the wind was blowing at least 15 knots. We wondered a bit on the cliffs and visited the inland sea.

Caroline in the wind

The narration on the bus said fishermen would take people out on their boats through the opening in the cliff to the caves and open water. We saw no evidence of this, I suspect they would get very few takers in those winds and it might also be too early in the tourist season.

The inland sea at Dwejra

Time was starting to run out a bit so the final stop we made was the Ggantija Temples which date from 3500-3000 BC, before Stonehenge and the Pyramids. It was fabulous, we all loved it. The site is really well documented and has an excellent museum. Amazing to imagine how the people who built this temple moved the huge rocks as they were not from the area. Same questions as were/are asked about how Stonehenge was built.

Interior of Ta’ Pinu Bascilica

Interior of one the rooms at Ggantija Temple

Exterior of Ggantija Temple

The bus was pretty full when it arrived and there were a lot of us waiting to get on so we ended up sitting on the outside upper deck. The views were great but it was COLD up there in the wind. I did get a good video at one point when the bus was coming down a steep hill. We had a very short wait for the ferry, the buses are timed to the ferry schedule and got lucky at the bus stop. We managed snag seats, it would have been a long stand although a lot of people did get off in the first 15 minutes to various hotels around the bays. We got off the bus at 7pm, dinner was at the ‘club’ again, great pizza and excellent Gavi for Bob and me, some good Chianti for Caroline. I guess Malta has lots of good Italian wines due to its proximity to Italy.

February 23, 2019 – Balzan

The forecast for this weekend is not great. Rain starting early this afternoon and lots of wind and rain overnight and all day tomorrow. Bob unfortunately got quite a bad headache, could be the change in the weather. We’re going to do laundry tomorrow and stay home for dinner so Caroline and I went out to do the grocery shopping before the rains came. We’re making coq au vin tomorrow night so got the chicken from the local butcher, picked up fresh still warm bread from the little bakery, vegetables from a guy on the street with a vegetable truck and the rest of the groceries from the big supermarket.

Our landlady Amanda came over with Rita the roofer to check out what needs to be done to stop the leak into the third floor TV room. Rita must be all of five foot tall. She said she had a tough time breaking into the male dominated business but she did it. Amanda brought us more of the Gavi she left for our arrival. We really like it and were not able to find anywhere. She also brought us two big bags of oranges from her father’s garden which she said has 200 orange trees. Amanda told us her daughter starts university next fall and wants to go the the US or Canada for that. The US is out because of cost but I think they are looking seriously at Canada, including Queens.

Amanda made reservations for us at Old Smugglers again, it’s very small and we figured we weren’t going to get lucky a second time getting a table without reservations on a Saturday night. The rain started mid afternoon along with thunder and lightning and it was really coming down. Caroline and I bundled up and grabbed house umbrellas. Bob stayed home to nurse his headache which was easing slowly. I had my hiking raincoat with a good hood so I was ok on top. You really had to hang on to the edge of the umbrella so the wind didn’t either nab it or turn it inside out. The most amazing thing about our approx 10 minute walk was that as cars went whizzing by, they would slow down so as not to splash us. The roads had huge rivers of water running down, there weren’t any obvious storm sewers that we could see. When we were walking home even the bus passing near our house slowed down!

We were the only people in the restaurant, I’m sure the weather, which really was nasty, kept lots of people home. We left around 8:45pm as a young couple was just coming in. Dinner was excellent again.

February 24/25 – Balzan, Malta

Sunday was laundry and relax at home day. We got two loads done, the machine did a great job. No drier so we used the rack. Sunday was also cook at home night, the coq au vin turned out really well. We also roasted potatoes and brussel sprouts – yum, yum. It rained lightly on and off pretty much all day and the wind was still fairly strong, we could tell by the movement of the TV aerial on the roof of the houses opposite us.

About to enjoy our coq au vin

Today we planned to see two things, the Hypogeum, an underground burial complex from 3600BC. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and we did read, more than once, that admittance is limited so you have to get tickets in advance. However, our collective memories failed us and we did not book in advance and arrived at the site to find that tickets were currently being sold for the end of March ! We could have got last minute tickets for 40 euro each if we wanted to wait until 4pm. But aside from not wanting to wait to 4pm (this was around 11am) which meant coming back later in the day, we also didn’t really want to pay 40 euro. We went to an outdoor prehistoric site that was nearby called the Tarxien Temples. It was a bit like like the Temples on Gozo, very interesting and the way the one was guided around the site was really well done like it was on Gozo.

Temples at Tarxien, person in background gives idea of scale

Next we hopped back on the bus to head to Marsaxlokk, which is a fishing village in the south east end of Malta. The harbour was full of colourful fishing boats but we were a bit disappointed that other than restaurants, there were no other shops in the harbour. We had a delicious lunch in the harbour, pricey but really good, we shared fresh sea bream and red snapper – yum. It was overcast so the harbour didn’t look quite as charming as it would have in the sunshine.

Back at home now after two bus rides and will need to make our plans for tomorrow.

February 26, 2019 – Balzan, Malta

More amazing Neolithic temples today. Our first stop, after an interesting winding bus ride that took us past the Dingli cliffs was to Hagar Qim. There was an excellent little introductory museum and also a 4D movie about the site. As with the other two sites we’ve visited, the mind boggles on how the huge boulders were moved. According to the information on the site, there is/was a lot of limestone in the area so at least it didn’t need to be moved miles and miles from where it was quarried.

Temple at Hagar Qim

Bob & Caroline – Temple at Hagar Qim

Temple at Hagar Qim

The second temple site, called Mnajdra is about a 10 walk towards the sea. According to information in the museum, both sites were again from around 3500BC and are supposed to be the oldest freestanding structures in the world.

Path from Hagar Qim to Mnajdra

We had a beer break on the sunny patio of the restaurant on the site and then took the bus to Dingli, passing the gorgeous cliffs which we plan to visit later this week. Our plan was to have lunch there, the guidebook claimed there were numerous cafes in the village, one restaurant which used a lot of local produce. When we first got off the bus we thought we’d made a mistake as we couldn’t see any cafes that were open. Then, whew, we came across Diar Il-Binet, the restaurant mentioned in the guide book. It was fabulous, the food was great and Caroline and I bought olive wood serving/cooking spoons for ourselves. We’re coming to walk part of the Dingli cliffs on Friday so we’ll be coming back here for lunch.

Dinner tonight at the local football club was not too exciting but ok.

February 27, 2019 – Balzan

We went back to Valletta today first to tour the Casa Rocca Piccola. It’s a 16th century palace and currently the home of the noble de Piro family. It was built in 1580 by one of the Knights of St John, Admiral Don Pierrot la Rocca. During WWII, or really before the war began but it was obvious it would happen, the then owner had the water cisterns drains in order to build bomb shelters for the family. Once war came, up to 300 people were able to use the shelters.


Winter dining room

Summer dining room

Our tour guide was excellent and it was interesting to see rooms that included lots of personal effects, paintings and photos of the families that had lived and still live there.

We then walked to the War Rooms which Bob wanted to tour, Caroline and I did some window shopping while he did the tour. I bought a small piece of handmade Maltese lace which I plan to have framed. The shop had a lovely small piece of lace already framed but at at 200 euros, I decided against it.

After lunch, we walked to the terminal for the ferry from Valletta to Sliema and found that the regular ferry was out for maintenance so a Captain Morgan tour line boat was providing the service. It was quite a long wait as the tour boat is not as fast as the ferry so could not keep up the “every 15 minutes” schedule.

Had the most amazing dinner at a place recommended by our landlady, 10ish minute walk from out house.