This is it
25.09.2011 - 04.10.2011 28 °C
Malta is a little archipelago of islands 230km north of Africa and less than 100km from Sicily. Only three of the islands, Malta, Gozo and Comino, are inhabited and cover an area of no more than 246 square kilometres. Basically you can drive from one end of the country to the other, including the ferry, in about an hour and a half. With a population of about 410 000 and the towns so close together it can be difficult to remember you are in a country and not visiting ‘just an island’.
Flying over Malta, it looked like a thousand lego pieces snugly fit together, all the same colour. It wasn’t long before we had arrived at one of the smallest airports I have ever been in. We had decidedto keep the traveller’s spirit alive by catching the bus and trying to just find our hotel rather than pay 10-15 euro for a cab. We were staying in the coastal township of Sliema and soon discovered that our bus driver had not taken any lessons in friendly so we had to lucky guess which stop could be ours. Not surprisingly we guessed wrong and ended up walking back and forth along the esplanade slowly getting directions off the locals. Finally success, at the top of a hill, we were settled in country number twenty-three.
The weather outlook was not good so we had to plan our days wisely. There were lots of cruises available, to Gozo and Comino or just around the island. The coastline is quite rugged with sheer cliffs, rock shelves and a handful of sandy beaches. We decided to spend our first full day, Monday, in Valletta, the capital (population 6300). After the five minute ferry ride we walked up then down the grid system of streets. The original buildings are almost like terrace houses with wrought iron Juliet balconies. They look like chunks of honeycomb in colour and texture. Often we would have to ask each other if we had already walked this street because so many of them looked almost identical. Malta has a strong Roman Catholic following, so much so that on Sundays, the day we arrived, everything was closed. Divorce and abortion are illegal and nearly all houses have a religious icon outside their front door. It is not too bad, teenage girls still dress so that we can see what they had for breakfast. Apart from one main pedestrian street that was quite busy the rest of Valletta was quiet and we often had whole streets to ourselves. We wandered up to the tip to look out over one of the many harbours in Malta and the fortress that was built.
Malta has an interesting history, starting with some megalithic temples that date back to 3600 and 2500BC. Pay attention now…..this makes them the OLDEST surviving freestanding structures in the world. They are older than the Pyramids of Giza. There are a couple all over the islands but the best one (apparently) is on Gozo so we made sure to visit. We can respect the age of things and it is good to be able to say “I’ve seen that” but honestly, it looked like a big pile of rocks which I guess it was. Anyway back to the history. Malta has been ruled by just about everybody starting with the Roman Empire then the Arabs, French, Spanish because of its ideal location in trade routes. In 1530 The Knights of the Order of St John established themselves on the island and set about building fortifications against the Ottomans. Then in 1565, 30 000 Ottoman soldiers attacked the small island country. Malta had a force of 8000 Maltese and 700 Knights. Clearly they were outnumbered. This battle, which is famously known as The Great Siege, lasted for three months before the Maltese managed to defeat those nasty Ottomans after Sicily sent a little bit of help. It was ferocious and bloody but good triumphed over evil. Who would have thought? The Knights of the Order became heroes and were declared ‘leaders’ of the small country. However greed got the better of them and Napoleon managed to buy them out around 1798. Finally, in 1814, Malta became part of the British Empire and subsequently became a target during WW2. In 1942, Malta was subjected to five months of day and night bombing which destroyed 40 000 homes and left food scarce. Independence finally came in 1974. For a little country to have such a colourful and turbulent history is amazing. Now I know why there are so many Maltese people in Mackay (where I grew up), they were all running from the war.
Tuesday we hired a car to get us around. We decided against a scooter due to the weather and it was lucky we did. Wind and dark clouds were looming for two days. Catching the ferry over to Gozo was cheap and easy and our first stop was Victoria, the capital city. It was quiet and we had a quick lunch and that was about it. There are however a few stops on Gozo that are recommended. One is the temples that I mentioned already. The others are Fungus Rock and the Azure Window. Fungus Rock is a big rock, surprise surprise, that many, many, many years ago had a fungus uncovered on top of it that was thought to have medicinal properties for everything from scabs to infertility. Every doctor in town prescribed it and anyone who was anyone applied it. Then finally the gullible souls of Malta discovered it wasn’t medicinal at all, it wasn’t even fungus, it was just some type of weed or something. The name stuck though. It looks like one of the twelve apostles shorter, fatter brothers. The other attraction is the Azure Window. This is a huge arch formed by the years of erosion and weathering. The water around the bottom of it is azure, hence the name. These rock formations are next to each other and set against the sheer drops and raggedness of the western coastline look quite magnificent. It is also a popular scuba diving site. It is quite amazing how different the coastlines are in Malta, east and west, sheer cliffs on one side and smooth rock shelves on the other.
The next day we explored Malta, what the locals call the mainland. It was grey, overcast and very very windy. We headed up to Golden Bay and found two other lovely beaches that we earmarked for the next day, weather permitting. Adam had an ocean swim before we headed back to Sliema for lunch and then off to the fortified city of Mdina. It is the original capital of Malta before that honour was handed to Valletta. Mdina is in the centre of Malta and is similar to Dubrovnik with its walls but much much smaller. It was reasonably quiet while we were there and we spent an hour or so wandering around the streets before heading into the Mdina Museum. The lady caught us reading the information out the front and gave us an enthusiastic spiel so we felt obliged. Anyway we were glad we did, it was an interactive museum with wax figures and OMG they were so real it was creepy. As you walked from section to section the area lit up and the one behind you darkened. With all those wax figures standing around, the darkness behind you was a little freaky but we braved it out. However we don’t remember anything we learnt because we were so creeped out by the wax figures we weren’t listening properly.
Final day the weather gods smiled and the sun came out so we went back to some unpronounceable beach so we could catch the last rays of the Mediterranean before heading home. Malta was very pretty and was a great stopover before Dubai. We enjoyed the friendliness of the people, the prettiness of our surroundings and of course the food. Our flight to Dubai was an afternoon one so we were able to take our time packing and getting ready to leave which was a bit of a treat for us. Usually we are rushing. The flight to Dubai was five hours with a quick stop in Larnaca. We didn’t know where Larnaca was and FYI it is in Cyprus.
We arrived in Dubai at 1am and it took us two hours before we were at our hotel. Our final gift to ourselves was a stay in the Sheraton, five star luxury. We have found it interesting though that when you stay somewhere cheap, say $70 a night, you get free wi-fi, free parking, sometimes even free laundry. The expensive places however charge you considerably to sleep in their beds and then don’t hold back on charging you for anything and everything extra they can. No free wi-fi and $7 for a small bottle of mineral water …..hmmm. Anyway we only had three full days in Dubai and so wanted to get a quick start so after only five hours sleep we were up and at ‘em. Over the creek in the water bus to check out the Old Souk, we were expecting something similar to Turkey’s Grand Bazaar but found a much smaller scale. Knowing that we were going to have a little money to spend we had planned out some potential purchases so we were in and out of shops asking for ‘best price’, ‘morning price’ or ‘your price’. The haggling is good fun and even better if you can get a bit of banter going with the salesman. Some of them have a great sense of humour and always always use their manners. That was definitely one thing we found the whole time we were in Dubai was how beautifully well-mannered they all are. It doesn’t matter whether you are in a souk, taxi or department store. It is always sir, ma’m, thank you, you’re welcome. After the textile souk it was over to the Gold Souk for a bit of a look and some compulsory purchasing of arab gold. It was hot, stinking, sweaty humid hot! The kind of heat where you feel that layer of grime developing on your skin and the air is so thick with moisture it is almost difficult to breathe. On our arrival at 2am it was thirty-three degrees so that tells you something.
We had a Desert Dunes Dinner Safari thingey booked for the evening. Neither of us were really feeling up for it considering our lack of sleep but it also wasn’t something we wanted to back out of. After being picked up, we were driven out to the desert. It was quite spectacular with the rolling dunes as far as the eye could see. The black flecks through the red tinted sand made it look like there were ridges in the sand. The convoy of cars met up so we could take some photos before they drove us over the dunes. Next came the fun bit. Front seat in the 4WD with a maniac driving like the devil was after us, with the car leaning into the sand so much sometimes it felt like we were going to tip. Feeling like a bit of a bogan because we were getting excited about driving in a car we thought we would complete the picture with a bit of ‘woohooing’ and ‘yeehaaing’. After about twenty minutes we arrived at the dinner destination, which literally was like a mirage. A belly dancer and an awesome male dancer that had three skirts on that lit up when he twirled like a ballerina made up the show followed by a delicious Arabian barbecue. Being driven home by 9.30 suited us and a good night sleep awaited.
Day two dawned and so did more shopping. Dubai Mall is the biggest mall in the world with 1200 shops, an ice-rink, aquarium, underground zoo and an enormous indoor waterfall. We had spent the morning in a smaller more user friendly shopping centre but were fascinated by the extravagance and fat burning power of walking Dubai Mall. We made sure to visit the Atlantis Hotel out on the man-made Palm Island. Basically our time in Dubai was short and sweet filled with shopping, creek rides and friendly Dubai-ans.
So now we sit here at the airport ready to head home. There is a sense of sadness and excitement. Sadness that it is all over and we have to go back to the ‘real world’ and excitement at seeing friends, family and two young men. Over the last 174 days we have seen some truly amazing things and we are both grateful for the experience. This is the last blog entry. Thank you to those who have been reading it and telling us your thoughts. It has been great to hear what you think, it encourages us. See you when we get home.