Wine and Karri trees

The last time I travelled almost 300kms by road* I ended up in the capital city of another country, exchanging one language, monetary system and culture for another. This time I swapped the dramatic cliffs, pine forests, snowy fields and deep fjords for endless sweeping fields, flame coloured native christmas trees and towering forests. Rather than north we went south, stopping in at places known by the locals as ‘Bunners’, ‘Busso’, ‘Cow Town’ and ‘Margs’, proving that even within the same country, a language can change.

Margaret River, or Margs, is WA’s best known wine region, full of vines, big wineries, boutiques, chocolate stores and restaurants. Within minutes of sampling a local Cab Sav** you can be swimming on white sandy beaches or surfing in legendary beaches, or descending into ancient caves to see towering forms and fossils. If this sounds like I’m writing copy for a tourist magazine, keep in mind that when describing this area, it’s hard not to wax lyrical. Plus for a WA woman who has been to other, more famous regions, I maintain the right to be proud of the work of my fellow WA folk, from a state where we are not usually known for creating fine wine, art and culture. As we tasted Shiraz and Petit Verdot, chatted with the owners of the little, boutique wineries and drove along the tree lined, rural roads, it felt like another land where the days of indulgence and sun would meld into each other, and where we forgot about the days to come after the holiday. It was not this way for the whole of the holiday however.

We arrived in Busso with rain clouds dragging behind us, fat and sleepy from the food and relaxation of christmas, ready to drop our stuff and get started on the holiday mood. On our first and only stroll to the beach, just behind our accommodation, the clouds opened up and wind howled, sending us back to our rooms questioning our plan for an afternoon swim. Heading into town for groceries and dinner we went to have a walk on the jetty, which at almost 2kms long is the longest wooden jetty in the world.

Clouds approaching the jetty

Clouds approaching the jetty

Despite the intention to trek the whole length, the weather again conspired against us and with sheets of rain drove us back to our car, laughing and dripping. We dried out over dinner at a pub, and fell asleep almost before our heads hit the pillows, barely noticing the raucous chatter of our new neighbours.

The first full day had been planned sometime before, and so we headed off fairly early to our appointment at a jeweller, where we got a reality check and a day to think things over. After which we scoured the Margaret River breweries for a free table and eventually fed ourselves, lining our bellies for the wine to come. A chocolatier and a few boutique wineries followed in a haze of deliciousness and an edge of tipsiness, ending at a brewery that had just the right mix of casual and quality, and brought about a heart to heart and a happy glow to the end of the day. The glow extended as we happily contemplated our haul of wines that evening, and enjoyed a few glasses over our picnic dinner.

How do you know that a decision you make while on holiday, when your tastes run a certain way, and when you know that they could change, is the right one? Especially when it’s something that you will, quite literally, carry with you for the rest of your life? This is what we did on the next morning, confirming the order and walking out feeling simultaneously buoyed and flummoxed. It was done and there was no going back. From the forests of Yallingup, which translates as ‘The place of love’ in the Indigenous language, we followed winding roads to the Wardan Cultural Centre, where we were able to meet someone wonderful. We took a tour with her and her daughter, where we were shown the trees, flowers and fruits that her people have survived off for tens of thousands of years. We tasted the balga and the snakebush berries, and chewed peppermint tree leaves, and learnt of the sheoak and how to make a moi moi. Most of all we got to spend time with an elder who knew herself and her land, and was as much a natural leader as anyone else I have ever met. It was a privilege to hear her speak about survival, joke about people she’d met and watch her daughter learn, the girl’s eyes following everything and completely comfortable in her place.
I hope to be able to go on one of the survival camps she runs one day, so I can learn how to survive on the land that I call home. Even after most of my life lived in it, I couldn’t live on it.

From the life and tranquility of the bush we continued to sample wines, lunch in Margaret River and make our way further down south. The landscape changed from Marri and Jarrah forest, to Jarrah with absurdly tall, Dr Seuss-like balgas, paperbark swamps and recently burnt scrublands. In time we began to spot the trees that I love most of all, tall, white trunks sticking out among the old marri trees. They are the tallest trees I have ever seen, and when they fill the forest in looks like a haphazard temple, the columns and green canopy unmoving as we pass underneath.

Panorama from our cabin

Panorama from our cabin

We stayed at a well known resort just before Pemberton, where we had also enjoyed our first ever getaway holiday years before. In a cabin overlooking the artificial lake, with the rushing of the waterfall and the stately karri forest reflected in the water, it was another world.

Beedelup falls

Beedelup falls

It was a world that we shared with the wildlife, including ring necked parrots that didn’t take any encouragement to gobble the seeds that I put out for them. The resort provided them as an alternative to the bread and snacks and would otherwise make the birds sick, and they clearly knew the drill, warbling to bring in the whole gang as soon as the seeds appeared.

The local gang

The local gang

They also knew where the seed was coming from, and had a go at opening the plastic container with the seeds before I hid it, then watching me with eyes that were a bit too knowing. When no more seeds appeared, they moved on to the next sucker with a final squawk and beady stare.

Can I have another?

Can I have another?

Our own dinner was a more civilized affair with less mess, and without wifi or internet connection we were able to relax and enjoy the scenery and peace of the lake. All too soon we had to leave, with a hot, filling breakfast in our bellies and a few hundred kms of road ahead of us.

Morning view

Morning view

Before turning north, however, we couldn’t leave without properly seeing the karri trees and so I had my first go at proper off-road driving, albeit in an old Volvo.

Old growth by the river

Old growth by the river

A karri valley

A karri valley

Going off-road among the karri

Going off-road among the karri

The track wound down to a river, and through magnificent old growth forest, ending at the 75 metre tall Bicentennial Tree. It can be climbed with metal spikes covered by a net, which I didn’t attempt, despite what must have been an amazing view.

The Bicentennial Tree

The Bicentennial Tree

Leaving the beautiful trees and ancient forest behind, we went north, stopping for lunch, and an ice-cream at a lavender farm. We of course visited one final winery, an old favourite that didn’t disappoint, and so it was that we arrived home satisfied, laden with wine and chocolate and dreaming of the forest that awaits the next holiday.

* By strange coincidence, the distance between Göteborg and Oslo, and my home and Margaret River is exactly 293 kms.
** Cabernet Sauvignon, for non-Australians

Places visited:
House of Cards Wines
Gabriel’s Chocolate
John Miller Design
Ashbrook Wines
Cape Grace Wines
The Beer Farm
The Cheeky Monkey Brewery
Wardan Aboriginal Cultural Centre
Thompson Brook Wines
Balingup Lavender farm

2015: Travels and moving forward

So 2015 is now in the past, and while like any year it creeps along at walking pace while living it, looking back it seems now to have been very full and sometimes reaching a sprint. It has been a year of travelling (7 different countries!), big steps forward (my own business) and important decisions.

It started, as all years do in Sweden, with fireworks and then a trip to Stockholm. Later in the month I met my mum in Copenhagen and traveled around with her, as we showed each other our lives in the North, both past and present.

As the darkness and cold continued to set in, there was a trip to sunny Malaga, a brief inoculation against the winter that has also left me in love with Spain.
Time passed, fear came to my home town, and then Easter and the turning of the seasons. I continued to work, relief teaching at schools and gathering private students, learning as I went. That fear seemed to grow throughout the year, rising from under the surface and at least right now it doesn’t look as though it’s going to recede any time soon.

More trips around the Nordic regions followed, including a cruise across the Baltic and a short stay in Aarhus, Denmark. Summer arrived, and with the holidays I left a beloved school, experienced my second Midsummer picnic and attempted indoor gardening. Other hobbies included joining a flamenco choir, trying to make it to a language café in between teaching and tasting the brews made by my partner.

As summer passed we flew to Malta, experiencing long sunny days, chaos, sea and incredible history. Back at home work continued to increase, with more and more private students and work through a consultancy. I found less time for writing and reflection, and for the first time since I started this blog, the gaps between posts became 2 weeks or more rather than 1. As my focus shifted, I set about making the most of the change, and formally set up my business, including a website and a business plan.

With the end of the year almost upon us, we visited London, a place I’ve long considered as a home that I’d not yet got around to visiting. It met, surpassed and left my expectations far behind, giving me yet another place that lurks invitingly in the back of my mind whenever I’m feeling restless.

Finally we returned to Australia for family, christmas and a holiday of sorts. It was intense, as any trip home to family, friends and real life is bound to be. As well as the various pressures and commitments, the days of the festive season were for the most part relaxing and enjoyable, filled with food and love. I also got a bit of a tan, though you wouldn’t think so if you asked the repairman who came to fix our dryer. I’m fairly sure I let him down a bit.

Then the year came full circle, with fireworks in the cold, cheering and friends, and a return to the long, dark wait until Spring. 2016 is still new and fresh and full of potential, and no amount of guesswork can tell what might happen. A few things are certain, and will be shared in their time, but mostly the year is unwritten, and we shall we what we shall see.

Perfect moments and deserving them

A couple of weeks ago we were gifted with two splendid weeks of sun and fine weather, which culminated in a perfect day.

It coincided with a visit from a friend from Australia, who I suspect now thinks I exaggerate when I say that Swedish weather is terrible. She was after nature and relaxation, and so we took advantage of the fineness to bask. It was not entirely selfless of us, as we’d thus far missed our annual dip.

It seemed that the entire city of Gothenburg had the same idea, however, as the succession of bus and trams were packed with people with packed lunches, all equally confused about why all these others were spoiling their pleasant day out.

At the harbour we were borne along by the throng to the ferry, ice-cream in hand, and were then off across the sea. If we had wanted to reach the open sea, we would have had to navigate the maze of islands that make up the two archipelagos lying at the mouth of the Göta river. Plus Denmark. The profusion of islands and distance of the truly open ocean is a bit disorienting for someone who grew up on the edge of an ocean that unfolds all the way to Africa.
We disembarked at the first stop, a little island called Asperö. A small village occupies much of the island, hedges not quite concealing cottages, filigreed in wood, traditionally painted or with modern bare planks. Flowers bloomed, branches bent under the weight of wild apples, bees buzzed and cats watched sleepily from under hedges. It felt like walking through a photo of a timeless summer.

Swedish cottage

Swedish cottage

Behind the village a path lead us into a wood, and into what seemed a painting. Birches swayed, wild flowers were spread among the moss and heaths, and ducks floated on a Monet-esque lily pad strewn pond. It was a fairytale wood, which ended when we reached the little beach.

Monet's pond

Monet’s pond

It was sheltered, partly by a rocky outcrop and a jetty that was built out from that. Families were paddling in the dark water and sunbaking on the rocks and grass, the peace broken by the giggling of children and splashing of teens jumping off the diving boards. Into this idyllic setting we settled down, little the bbq and sipped wine as the food cooked. Behind the jetty and the occasional kayakers we could see the mouth of the Göta river and the harbour we had come from. Now and then a huge ferry or other ship would slowly pass through the scattered islands and disappear around the side of our island, to quiet and distant to be anything but a background.

A beach and the Göta

A beach and the Göta

For a few hours we ate, swam, splashed and dozed in the sun. The perfect moments passed by.

Swedish summer days

Swedish summer days

That night we shared dinner with various Swedes and Finns on a row of tables on a balcony, the tables covered in food and drinks. We scoffed Västerbotten pie, vegan sausages, halloumi, salad, bread and grapes, the food and talk going on well into the night, as our eyelids got heavier. At one point a few thousand joggers ran down the street outside and we cheered at they passed, some wearing costumes and most looking very focused indeed. More so than us with our glasses of wine and beer and full stomachs.
Then, as the night drew long and began to get chilly, we set off home and in time slept.

What I wonder now as I write this and read the news is how do we deserve this? Why do we get the beautiful summer days and long summer nights with friends, in peace and scenery worthy of paintings? Maybe no one ever deserves anything. Perhaps there is no scale deciding whose 3 year old boy dies in a dark sea and whose 28 year old daughter gets to doze in soft Swedish sunlight with loved ones around her.
There is no fairness, or luck. But we do have love.

*Photo credits to https://www.flickr.com/photos/jg31/

A cruise around Malta or: Peace, beauty and Enya

What would you during your last day on Malta? Dash about cramming in the sights you’d missed? Sunbathe by a beach and wait out the day? Cruise around the islands on a ship with tasty food and pleasant music as the cliffs and towns pass you by?
I’ll let you guess which option we chose.

The ship (there you go) was one of those sleek vessels with polished wooden decks and every nook and cranny supplied with cushions and sunbathing mats. From our perch on a bench on the prow, we watched the residential towers, party neighbourhoods, industrial sites and finally the Fort of St Elmo pass by, as we gradually gained speed, slicing into the calm blue water as we headed out to sea.

Fort St Elmo in the morning

Fort St Elmo in the morning

I am going to say here and now that this post may contain moments in which I wax poetic. There is really no help for this, as my choices with some of the sights that we saw is bland and false disinterest or poetic panegyrics.

Our first sights once we were out of the harbour was a ring of floating fish farms, and the flicker of a dorsal fin gave away the fact that we were not the only visitors. The captain told us that a family of dolphins had been seen nosing around the farm for years, and as far as I could tell from the relaxed ducking and flickering they did seem very casual, a group of locals making their daily visit to the local eatery, without any real rush.

Floating farms

Floating farms

Continuing around the southern point of the main island we spotted a few of the line of towers that ring the east coast. They date from the time of the Knights of St John, though looked so neat and well kept that I guessed they must have been used in WW2 as well. Though from our seats on the ship, munching snacks and humming along to hits of the 90s everything seemed peaceful and calm, this was a reminder of the vulnerability of the islands, at least in the past. I hope they can remain ornamental, but with Tunisia and the recent beach shootings so near, it’s impossible to know what will happen in the future.

Turning north again the landscape changed, beaches and harbours giving way to towering limestone cliffs and occasional rocky shores. Sights from other days could be glimpsed, such as the white tents that shelter Mnajdra and Ħaġar Qim, sheltered in turn by a small tower. How must they have looked to people sailing or paddling past when they were intact and in use, the huge stones a short distance from the cliffs, nestled in the low hills that rose slowly behind them? Was there a continual line of people going to and fro, and smoke rising from fires within the temples? Were they painted in multiple colours or left the golden white of the cliffs?

Mnajdra above the cliffs

Mnajdra above the cliffs

It wasn’t just human constructions that drew our eyes and stuck in our minds. Sometimes when sights, sounds and feelings all come together, a moment is recorded in my mind and kept for posterity. When I think back to that day I can see waving curtains of cliffs, layers of yellow, pink and white, above sparkling blue water. In the background Enya is crooning about sailing away and any conversation from the other guests has faded, as if we were alone with the cliffs and the sea and the sky. There were a few hours of cliffs, ventures into massive caverns and caves and drifting along but it’s that moment, that perfect moment, that I have been able to keep and try to share.

Cliffs of Malta

Cliffs of Malta

Just after midday we arrived at Comino, the tiny island between Malta and Gozo. There we anchored just around the corner from the famous Blue Lagoon, which is a sheltered bay famed for its crystal clear water and popularity with tourists. It was, of course, packed, the swimmers forming a solid lump on the beach and in the shallows. The water was quieter amongst the boats where we were, but no less clear and blue.

Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon

With an hour and a half to spend before the boat took off, we put on our shoes and went for a hike on the scrubby, rocky island. We had planned to have a look at the castle that had been used in filming the most recent Count of Monte Cristo film, but unfortunately and surprisingly given what we could see of the size of the island, it would take about an hour to reach it. This, we decided, was a tad unrealistic so after a closer look as the very blue and very busy Blue Lagoon we swapped shoes and hats for bathers and snorkels and plunged into the sea. For the next while, we snorkeled around the bay, pointing jellies out to other swimmers and schools of fish to each other and generally feeling as though we had landed in some sort of paradise. Many times we were able to swim just above darting schools of fish and seemed almost able to touch them before they effortlessly shimmered away, and spotted crabs and sea urchins among the coral and sand dunes.

From the sheltered bays of Comino we circled Gozo, passing the Azure Window, the cathedral studded hills and green valleys in between. In a small cove we pulled in and dropped anchor, and descended once more into the clear blue Maltese waters. Below the surface the waves had formed curves and twisting lines in the land which shifted slightly as the tide pulled them and us towards the shore. Occasional fish also swam past, almost impossible to see against the white sand and dimmed light below the surface. Above us the sky continued to glow blue and warm, unchanged from the morning, though a breeze grew as we turned south, towards Malta.

A cove at Gozo

A cove at Gozo

Drifting back down the east coast we saw familiar towns and castles, and even the bay where we were staying for one more night. The heavily populated and less cliff lined east side seemed a different island to the serene and austere west coast, where the only signs of humans were occasional fishing shacks and ancient temples. There the natural defenses of the cliffs precluded any castles or towers, as well as any industry that didn’t also include perilous climbs up and down the rock faces. It’s this serenity and sparseness that was the most beautiful for me, and the timelessness of geology.

Endless cliffs

Endless cliffs

Before we either knew or wanted it, we were back in the Grand Harbour, passing again by the Fort of St Elmo and the tourist sights and apartment buildings. We docked and department, barely able to believe that an entire day had gone by, and so fast.

Returning to the Grand Harbour

Returning to the Grand Harbour

It was the only day we left ourselves entirely to the whim of someone else and not having to plan travel and preparations was pretty wonderful. Even more wonderful was the peace, luxury and beauty of gliding through calm waters in the shade of pastel cliffs and swimming with schools of fish in crystalline bays.

Our ship, MS Hera

Our ship, MS Hera

More than just a highlight of the Maltese holiday and a perfect ending, this cruise was a highlight of my new life in Europe, and I hope that as long as I live I can recall that moment of peace, beauty and Enya.

Calypso’s island

In The Odyssey by Homer, the hero Odysseus is shipwrecked on an island during his long and arduous journey home to Ithaca. On the island he is met by a sea nymph who takes a shine to him, and decides to keep him. Though he longs to return home to his Penelope, he is seduced by the sea nymph, who offers him eternal youth and her love. 7 years pass until he begs the gods to intercede and let him continue on his journey home. According to some stories the sea nymph is enraged and tries to kill herself as he leaves her, and in others she realises that he is miserable and helps him build a ship and gather supplies for his voyage, waving him off as he left.
Whatever the truth of the ending, the name of the sea nymph was Calypso and according to legend the island was Gozo, the second largest of the three Maltese islands and where we were lucky enough to spend a day exploring.

We got to Gozo by ferry, from which we got a view of the cliffs and coasts of the islands, including a view of Comino, the smallest of the three islands which lies between them. Comino is famous for two things, both of which I’ll explain in another post very soon.

Mġarr Harbour

Mġarr Harbour

The first impression I had of Gozo was of a cathedral on a hill above a city of limestone. This sight was repeated throughout the island, which even after many years of habitation seems to mostly consists of the ancient style of villages perched on hills, surmounted by surprisingly elaborate cathedrals, and with farmland nestled in the valleys between them.
We took a hop on-hop off bus to get around, winding first through the steep streets of the harbour town of Mġarr and then crossing through villages and green valleys to Victoria, the capital of the island. Marking it out from the other hill-top towns, Victoria is surmounted by a walled fortress, which we reached by climbing up a steep road lined with strange bollards. They weren’t technically bollards in the usual sense, but looked like tall, boxlike altars covered in bright paint and embosses with gold. Streamers hung from them and the street lights, all of which we worked out later was preparation for an oncoming religious festival, the bollards signifying the various saints that preside over the town.
Inside the walls the fortress also seemed to be unfinished, with cranes leaning everywhere and scaffolding hulking on the sides of many buildings. From the walls we could see over the surrounding countryside, even as far as a statue of Jesus with arms stretched towards the sea, in a valley to the east.

Walls of Victoria

Walls of Victoria

From Victoria we headed to the coast to see an amazing structure that wasn’t made by humans. To get there we had to climb and scramble across an obstacle course of tidal rocks, rock pools and low caverns, dodging all the other people who were heading to and fro around us. The sight at the end was worth the trek. The Azure Window is a narrow cliff jutting out into the sea with a window worn into it which reaches about 30 metres from the calm sea to the arch of harder stone above.

The Azure Window

The Azure Window

Near the base of the window is a sheltered area with shallow pools and a deep hole that plunged I don’t know how deeply. People of all ages were climbing on the surrounding rocks and jumping in, splashing about and generally making me wish I’d brought my bathers. Groups of divers trudged to the pool, heavily laden with tanks and equipment and then disappeared in clouds of bubbles, exploring whatever lay beneath.

We did get to have a closer look at the Window, however, and we didn’t have to get wet. Around the corner from the carpark where we’d arrived was a small bay surrounded by cliffs, where little Maltese boats rocked in the water under the gazes of patient Maltese fishermen. We hired one of them to take us out for a short tour, and were soon puttering through a narrow slit in the cliffs, the high rock faces seeming to part like curtains as we passed through the darkness to the sunlight on the other side.

Passing through the cliff

Passing through the cliff

Once out in the open water we saw huge cliffs and at the base of them small grottos which we explored. As we floating into them, the fisherman pointed at the waterline where we could make out the shapes of coral growing on the rocks, and shining in a strange way. He explained that it was something to do with the qualities of the coral, though it still seemed unearthly to me.

Cliffs and glowing coral

Cliffs and glowing coral

As we bobbed into the various grottos and looked down and then up into the high roofs, I could imagine that people in the past would have thought gods or spirits lived there, just out of reach of the light, perhaps waiting to pull them in if they weren’t careful.

A grotto in the cliffs

A grotto in the cliffs

We also got to see the Azure Window from the other side, the swimmers and cliffs now framed inside it.

As with the main Maltese island, Gozo has its share of ancient history, the most impressive being the Ġgantija temples. If the same sounds something like ‘gigantic’ to you, you’re on the right track.
Local folklore says that the temples were built by a giantess who ate nothing but broad beans and honey, because there was no way that mere humans could have moved the massive stones into position. While it may not have been built by giants, the site is still distinguished as being the second oldest surviving religious structure in the world, and dates from 3600BCE. To give you an idea of how long ago this was, it was prior to the invention of metal and the wheel had yet to be introduced to Malta.

An ancient altar?

An ancient altar?

In person the temples very imposing, though in worse condition than the temples we had seen on the main island, as they have been exposed to the elements and people for longer. A number of rooms, wall, altars, walkways, floors and doorways remain, giving us some idea of what the site might have looked like when it was in use.

A wall of Ġgantija

A wall of Ġgantija

The temples sit on the edge of a plateau, and it was along the side of this that we soon trundled on a bus, heading down into the valley below. As the road curved around the side of the hill, we passed a site that we hadn’t had the time to visit. We did get to see the view as it would have been seen from the mouth of the cave. Remember Calypso? This was where she had lived, her cave nestled in the shelter of the hill with a view through the valley to the sea, all the better to watch out for travellers to welcome and enchant.

View down the valley

View down the valley

Gozo seemed to us to be a holiday away from the bustle of Malta, where the locals themselves go for a break. It’s greener, quieter and beautiful, and I recommend it to anyone visiting Malta.

Now you may be thinking that by the time we got back to the apartment our mystery history adventures were over. Au contraire! There was one more discovery we made before we rested from our day’s journey, and we barely had to leave the apartment to find it. Around the corner from the apartment was what seemed to be an overgrown field between buildings and the construction site, in the middle of which lay an area of exposed stone. A closer look revealed long, deep cuts in the stone, always two parallel lines that began somewhere out of sight and then disappeared in the same way. They were straight, crossed over each other and curved, as if a group of people had curried through mud with carts, and a hot day had dried it out. They are known as cart-ruts and they appear all over Malta, in small remnants and huge sites more than a hundred metres long. This is basically the entirety of the concrete knowledge about them. They are believed to be from the Bronze Age and up to the Roman period and were formed by humans over a very long period of time, the results of carts weathering tracks into rock.

Cart-ruts in the suburbs

Cart-ruts in the suburbs

We picked up a book on the subject (Cart-Ruts and their impact on the Maltese landscape by David H. Trump) which is delightfully inconclusive. As well as offering multiple possibilities for dates, causes and reasons, the book ends with,

‘If any reader can come up with a convincing answer…, I and many other scholars would be delighted to hear from them. However, Maltese cart-ruts would be much less exciting if we knew all the answers.’

We may never know who made them, why they were made or how. We are unlikely to know why the temples of Ġgantija were built on the hill and what was done there. We will never know whether a Greek traveller washed ashore on Gozo to be welcomed and kept by a mysterious woman in her cave.
But we can wonder and as Mr Trump says, life would be less exciting if we knew everything.

Art, a Silent City and the problem of history

The first few days of our visit to Malta had been full; full of sights, tastes and bustling. As with any feast we needed a bit of a pause afterwards to digest and take a breath before we plunged on into dessert.
So on the Wednesday our first activity wasn’t running to a bus but strolling to the nearest beach. There we paddled, splashed, read, dozed and generally ignored the passing of time. Neither did we pay attention to the sunscreen that was washing away in the gently lapping water, though we certainly noticed it later.
The rest of that day, a reverse hump day, passed with grocery shopping at a van, a ‘beer-tail’ and views of the sea.

Cisk and chips

Cisk and chips

Having cleared our minds of stress and bother, we began Thursday with a bus ride and soon found ourselves waiting for a second bus, wondering after 45 minutes if it wouldn’t be easier to walk. Luckily, before the heat caused us to actually start this mad trek, the bus arrived and we gratefully squeezing among the other holiday goers and locals, heading to the old capital.
Mdina sits on a hill just above the neighbouring Rabat, looking down on the surrounding countryside from behind high, honey-coloured limestone walls. The bus took us up to the walls, but before venturing into the city we took a detour to a small and unassuming museum to find out more about a period of Maltese history that we’d missed so far.

The Domus Romana museum is, as the name suggests, located on top of the remains of an ancient Roman house and though it was small and the staff seemed almost comatose from boredom it was one of the most surprising museums I’ve visited. I was expecting the mosaic floors that I’d read about to be of the smiling masks and abstract patterned variety, and they did have those. But as I looked down at the largest mosaic, which had probably been the centrepiece of the peristyle, I thought I was seeing something modern. The mosaic had been done in a series of 3D maze like twisting patterns that looked as though they were coming out of the floor. I’ve seen Roman mosaics with chariot drivers, faces and animals, some of which looked almost lifelike and many with incredible detail and skill, but the modernness of these was amazing.

3D mosaic

3D mosaic

Just off from the peristyle was a room that might have been the study, decorated with black and white diamond shapes in a pattern that again seemed to lift out of the floor. In a corner damage had been fixed inexpertly, showing that the owners had fallen on hard times. I wondered why, and how and who they are and as usual wished for a time machine.

Old and often repaired

Old and often repaired

Outside were more remains, less well preserved, of other houses and streets which ended suddenly on the right with a large ditch. This had been built a few decades ago when they were building a railway, cutting through and demolishing part of the house and other buildings, not even leaving rubble behind. They had known about the remains, but had cut through anyway, which I guess isn’t all that surprising in a country where you can’t avoid history even if you wanted to.

It’s the same problem, if you choose to think of it as a problem, that lead to us having to walk across a construction site to reach the bus stop or run along a highway to get to the nearest town. The construction was part of a roadworks project that should improve the roads along the north-eastern part of Malta, and I’m sure will be appreciated by tourists and locals alike when/if it ever finishes. The problem is that there has been a major delay. While preparing for the roadworks someone found the remains of a Neolithic tomb, and after calling in archaeologists and doing excavations and studies the roadworks were delayed by 3 months, pushing it into peak tourist time and generally making life irritating for everyone except the archaeologists.
The same person who told us about the roadworks also mentioned that anyone building a house in Malta had better have a lot of patience and time on their hands, as all houses have to be in a set style, upgrading a house is fraught with paperwork and gods forbid you find anything historical lying around. Just don’t bother, she said, shrugging with a mix of pride and exasperation.
History, she seemed to imply, may be all very well and good, but we’ve got to live and how can we do that if it keeps haunting us?

Having gotten our fill of the Roman history of Malta, we walked through the gardens and along the moat and walls that surround the old capital. It’s been inhabited for about 6000 years, fortified by the Phoenicians in the 700sBCE and called Malet, then taken over by the Romans and named Melita and over time it was passed through the hands of the Saracens who gave it the name Mdina, followed by Normans, French and English until we get to today. They all left their marks with high walls, an impressive city gate and a maze of palaces, cathedrals and houses that add up to the almost unearthly ‘Silent City’. It has apparently also been a site for the filming of Game of Thrones where stood in for King’s Landing at one point, which I guess must have made it briefly a little less silent.

Mdina city gate

Mdina city gate

It’s called the ‘Silent City’ partly because no cars are allowed to enter, and possibly also because just under 300 people live there. It seemed to me though that the main reason for the silence, broken only by the quiet chatter of tourists, clip-clop of horse-drawn tourist buggies and bustle of small souvenir and craft shops, is the thickness of the doors and the height of the barred windows on all the houses. There is a definite impression of there being two cities, one passing by on the streets, and the other inside the walls of the houses, and never the twain shall meet.

Silent streets

Silent streets

After exploring the twisting streets and alleys, we found a cafe that had been recommended by our Bulgarian roommates. Fontanela sits perched on the city walls, overlooking the countryside to the north. From our table we could see all the way to the sea and beyond, even making out Valletta to the east and many small unknown villages in between.

View from Mdina walls

View from Mdina walls

Filled with pastizzi and ftira (a local tuna sandwich), all of course delicious and surprisingly cheap, we wandered some more and encountered no one who wasn’t a tourist or a shop keeper.

Mmmmmm, pastizzi

Mmmmmm, pastizzi

Just out of the shadow of Mdina sits the craft village of Ta’Qali. While my fella went off to explore the nearby Aviation Museum, I wandered around the complex of former airforce huts, many of which contained the typical tourist fare. I soon found some that were more interesting, shops divided into the display area while at the back craftsmen and women worked away. Potters painted, carpenters carved, glassblowers blew and silversmiths twisted filigree. Near the back of the complex I walked into a glassmaker’s workshop, where a craftsman was molding something with the ease of much practice. I stayed to watch for a while, as he molded, coloured, blew, heated and pinched the blob of glass into shape, while the furnaces thrummed behind him and an industrial sized fan kept the temperature to a liveable level.

Making a swan

Making a swan

After I’d been watching with interest for a few minutes he gestured for me to climb over the rope dividing his workshop from the watching area, and indicated that I could choose a colour. I chose blue and then green, and he then explained and demonstrated the steps of molding, heating, stretching and pinching, which turned a pear shaped lump into a delicate swan. It was something like magic to watch him at work, and as the swan disappeared into one of the ovens to gradually cool I wished that I could have it myself, so I could be reminded of the fascination of watching a craftsman at work whenever I saw it.

Then he got a new lump on a long, hollow stick and held it out to me.
‘Blow hard and steadily,’ he advised and I tried to do so, watching light-headedly as the lump ballooned out into a clear bauble of glass, perfectly round. After saying that I may have blown a bit too long, but smiling, he gently tapped it against the side of the tray in front of his chair, where it smashed into shards unrecognisable from the remnants of sculptures and other tourist attempts.

The remains of my first attempt

The remains of my first attempt

Then another group of people wandered closer, curious, and I slipped out, glancing once at the oven where the swan sat as I went.
The last stop was a silversmith workshop, where the owner demonstrated the twisting, welding and beating involved in making the delicate and intricate works around him. There was a tiny grand piano, complete with strings and a stool and a Spitfire plane made of tiny twists of silver. I found a small Maltese cross and bought it, as my personal reminder of Malta.

Having both finished exploring, my fellow explorer and I met and waited at the bus stop, as bus after bus went past. After about an hour the bus we were waiting for arrived, and we climbed on, tired but satisfied with our day. The traditional rabbit stew and local wine that evening also helped.

When is Summer not really Summer

There has been a lot said on my blog lately about our holiday in Malta. There is much left to be said, adventures to be relived and ponderings to be considered. For now, for this week, however I’m going to take a break from the holiday and let the blog settle back into daily life.

Freshly baked daily bread

Freshly baked daily bread

Despite us just having recently passed the peak of Summer, the two things that usually sum up that time of year in Sweden do not apply at the moment.
Most of the locals, our workmates and friends have disappeared to sunnier climes, or popped up on sunny beaches on Facebook or sporting a tan from weeks in Spain. Even businesses are taking a break, many stores sporting ‘semester stängt!’ signs on the doors and promising to be back in August. Our own tans fading, we have returned to work and the usual comings and goings of the non-holiday year.

No doubt it was like this last year, during our first full Summer, but the long sun-filled days and fine weather distracted us from the absences. We have not been so lucky this year. Rather than open itself up to endless blue and those tiny, puffy clouds that are so nice to stare at while lying on your back after a picnic, the sky has opened to release rain, and a lot of it. When we returned from Malta we arrived in time to enjoy the third of three properly Summer days, and since then we’ve all had to suffice with mornings and afternoons here and there, scattered and fine enough that we feel grateful whenever we feel the warmth of the sun. It does teach you to enjoy it when it comes, and staring out the window at the blank white sky and drizzle, I don’t think I could ever take fine weather for granted again.

A semi-sunny day at the lake

A semi-sunny day at the lake

So we sit inside, and when we’re not working my partner gets on with his beer and cider brewing while I design labels and help with the bottling.

A few of the bottled brews

A few of the bottled brews

My projects in the meantime have included making elderberry cordial and raspberry syrup from scratch, and tinkering with the idea of prettying up some old clothes. In short we’ve adopted Swedish winter habits, keeping our hands and minds busy while the world outside gets on with its unpleasant business, whatever that may be.

Raspberry syrup waiting to be tasted

Raspberry syrup waiting to be tasted

So, while our tans fade and the days shift inexorably to Autumn, we are occupied with creating and experimenting, taking a morning or afternoon to enjoy moments of sun, and looking forward to enjoying the fruits of our labours when the dark seasons properly set in. And vicariously enjoying the sun through those whose holidays still continue.

Elderflower cordial ready for Autumn

Elderflower cordial ready for Autumn

Forts, festivals and sunsets over the sea

The capital city of Valletta on the island of Malta was at one time the headquarters of the Knights of St John, and had in fact been built by them. Or they ordered it built in any case. The Knights were one of the more adventurous orders, skipping from country to country one step ahead of the Ottomans, laying siege here, being besieged there and amassing a lot of wealth along the way. When they eventually washed up on the scant shores of Malta, I imagine there may have been some sights of ‘here we go again’ from the inhabitants, or whatever the local equivalent is on an island that almost seems to be the hot potato of the Mediterranean.
These latest visitors would only be around for about 250 years, but during that time they left their mark very clearly all over the islands. 14 towers circle the islands, castles and fortresses surmount most large hills, and at the capital you can’t go 5 metres without seeing a trace of them. Especially if you approach by water.

Fort St Elmo is perched on the seaward facing point of the penninsula. As you approach from the north on a bus, winding around the points of St Julian and Sliema, you can catch glimpses of the massive walls and towers, the golden limestone glowing in the morning light. From the walls themselves you can get an amazing view over the harbour and surrounding metropolis, as well as imagine what it must have been like for the soldiers watching the sea for invading fleets. In 1565 there would have been blood and fighting where we stood enjoying the sea breeze, as the fortress fell during the Great Siege. A little distance away from the walls, we found the small, quiet chapel of St Anne which had apparently been the site of the last stand of the Knights, and where a number of priests were killed. I read this before I went in, so I couldn’t help shivering a little as I looked around, and not just from the chill of the darkened room.

Chapel of St Anne

Chapel of St Anne

In addition to chapels, walls, bastions (whatever they are) and gates with eyes, the Fort of St Elmo contains a war museum detailing the military history of Malta.

An eye guarding the gates

An eye guarding the gates

Not having a huge amount of interest in the subject, at least when it doesn’t concern really ancient military history, I left my fella to it and wandered out of the fortress and into the streets of Valletta. The main streets leading from the city gates to the fortress were busy with tourists, so I nipped down a few side streets, passing locals going about their business. There was an old man on a mobile talking animatedly, a woman hanging up washing on her balcony and a number of stray cats snoozing in the shade of parked cars. For some reason most of the cats on Malta are ginger. My theory is that once, long ago, a ginger cat was brought to the island and through a campaign of feline bullying took over the capital city and ensured that its descendants continued its gingery legacy. Most likely it came from Sicily, where keeping it in the family is apparently de rigueur.

My feet eventually led me to the Museum of Archaeology, where I spent a happy few hours exploring the long history of the islands. Among the things that most struck me were the sculptures from the Neolithic period. The most common were large women, sitting with legs decorously folded to the side and one arm folded. There were no heads on the bodies, but rather a hole where archaeologists assume a series of interchangeable heads could have been inserted. Though some were clumsily made, there were many that had been very finely carved, the folds in their dresses precisely made and their hands and feet delicate, giving a sense of dignity and poise even after all these years.

Stone ladies

Stone ladies

Elsewhere in the museum was a room dedicated to the Phoenicians, who had dominated the islands before the Romans took over in the 200sBCE. I’ve never had a chance to see Phoenician artifacts before, overwhelmed as they were and are by their noisy competitors, so a tiny curse scroll in their script and a sarcophagus who looked as though she was holding her breath were pleasant surprises.

Phoenician sarcophagus

Phoenician sarcophagus

History ancient and military achieved, we met up and made our way to the Upper Barakka Gardens, swapping notes on the history of the islands. From the balconies and shady tables of the gardens we had an amazing view out over the harbour and city, the industry of the docks chugging away behind tourist boats, and ancient fortresses blending with busy neighbourhoods.

Valletta from the gardens

Valletta from the gardens

Before we could let ourselves settle too deeply into our chairs, however, there was an event that night that I very much wanted to attend. The L-Imnarja is an ancient agricultural festival held in honour of St Paul and St Peter (or at least since Catholicism came to Malta), which takes place in Buskett Garden. This is a grove not far from Mdina in the centre of the island and as such I had assumed from the safety of my computer in Sweden that it would be no problem to get there and join in the market stalls and watch the donkey and horse races before the fireworks were finally set off. Once in Malta the reality of traveling the 12.5kms from Valletta to Buskett settled in, and so did we on our bus seats as we sadly passed the stop for the festival, realising that if we did get off there would be no reliable way to get back home.
Instead we continued on the bus to Dingli cliffs, which is less disappointing now that I know that we should have gone around the corner to see the real ones. The sunset over the scrubby flowers and plants and the sea beyond was a lovely sight though, and worth the long bus ride and teenagers loudly singing the hits of the 80s.

Sunset over Dingli

Sunset over Dingli

Tired and hungry, we went back to town and dined on local pastries and a slushie overlooking the Sliema harbour, were refused admittance to the last bus home as it was too full and caught a taxi back to the apartment, trying not to doze off as we rocked up the roads and trudged across the construction site in the bright, Mediterranean moonlight.

First taste of Malta

The landscape of Malta is similar to Spain from the air; yellow and brown, with golden-cream coloured towns and patches of dark green that looked shrubby even from the air. As we descended the buildings became a mix of balconied Italian houses with Qatar-esque arches in the same shade of warm gold limestone. Cacti and eucalyptus trees filled in gaps, making the mix of familiar and foreign even stronger. As we bussed to the apartment where we would be staying, we caught glimpses of a calm blue sea and heavily populated bays awash with yachts. After missing our stop we caught another bus back and then found ourselves navigating around a dusty construction site to the apartment, where our hosts were cheerfully waving in welcome. After that we were very enthused about relaxing and washing off the muck of air travel and construction site, and so devoted some time to that.

Malta from above

Malta from above

Have you noticed that you never feel clean after a journey on a plane? Conspiracy nonsense aside, there’s something strange about passing through vast and then cramped sterile areas and feeling as though you’re carrying an inch of gunk on your skin. Rarely is a shower more welcome, and so it was for me on that first evening.

Outside the apartment, across the construction site, lay a very shallow bay, walled and bisected into large square pools. These, we learnt later, were 16th century salt pans which have fallen into disuse, though a small chapel still stands in the centre, blessing the quiet, salty water.
As there was no way over the salt pans we went around, again venturing into a construction site, which wasn’t very secure. Not enough to keep out two cautious tourists and various locals at least. I would like to point out that if there had been footpaths we would have happily used them, but there weren’t, so we didn’t. We passed through a ‘no trespassing’ into a park, past an incongruous memorial to JFK and bit by bit got closer to the living part of the area.
Terraced roads overlooked the bay, which deepened and filled with boats, and as we strode along families enjoyed their dinner in the sun, or cleaned out the motors of boats. We soon enjoyed our own dinner, pizza and local wine in a boathouse restaurant as the sun set on the other side of the island.

The further around the peninsula of Qawra that we went, the thicker the crowds of tourists became. Many were middle aged and Italian, strolling along with grandkids or in groups enjoying their holidays. It would be later before we started to see more of the younger crowds, and began to hear more snippets of English. At the tip of the penninsula, below street level and facing the sea, is Cafe Del Mar. We never got around to visiting, but even at 8pm it seemed to me to embody the sort of place that people imagine when thinking of Mediterranean islands in summer. A perfectly clear and calm pool, umbrellas and white deck lounges, with bars scattered among them prepping for the night ahead, and electronic music pumping away.

Cafe Del Mar in the evening

Cafe Del Mar in the evening

The hours passed and we walked further, stopping to listen to a charity gig opposing human-trafficking and stare at the horse drawn carriages trotting past. We ended up in St Paul’s Bay with a bottle of red and a sense of really being on holiday in a place that seemed stranger and more surprising with each passing moment.

The capital of Malta is Valletta, formerly the base for the Knights of St John, and was where we headed for our first full day. A bus took us through labyrinthine streets and stone walled garden plots and deposited us at the gates of the city. And they were certainly city gates, tall and imposing and flanked by deep moats. Inside my first impression was of modernity, the sharp edged building to the right and the touristy mall to the left not fitting with the image of ancient fortress. As we soon discovered, this was because the original buildings that had stood there had been destroyed during WWII. In fact a majority of the buildings on the islands had been bombed to dust by the German airforce, leaving the way open for new styles and architecture. As well as a lot of rubble, which seems to have been converted into the precarious stone walls that divide the islands. Despite this, most of the houses were built in what I think of as the old, Italian style, with tall narrow town-houses fronted by elaborate balconies.

Matching balconies

Matching balconies

Much of Valletta was made of these, the straight and hilly streets shadowed by brightly painted or scuffed, wooden or metal balconies in many styles. It being Sunday many shops were closed, but we managed to find the tourist office, which was mysteriously empty. When there were so many tourists around, why were none of them in here booking tours and asking the same questions over and over? The answer would become clear to us in time, but at this point we just grabbed some pamphlets, were vaguely helped by the receptionist when she glanced up from her phone, and then headed back out into the sunlight.

Inside St John's Co-Cathedral

Inside St John’s Co-Cathedral

Our first attraction in this ancient city was almost on a whim, as we passed craft stalls and then turned to peer into St John’s Co-Cathedral. Why not go in, we thought. As I was wearing shorts (actual shortish shorts, for the first time in over a year. Truly summer had come!) I had to wrap a cloth around my legs, which turned out to be handy for clipping things on as we explored. As the tourist book said, it was elaborate, the walls decorated richly in gold and silver and bright colours, the floor covered with the tombstones of knights done in multi-coloured marble, each one individual.

Tombstones of long-dead knights

Tombstones of long-dead knights

I admired the chapels, each unique and elaborate, and soaked in the two paintings by Caravaggio that hang in the Cathedral. On one wall is a painting of an aged St Jerome writing in a dark room, and facing it across a large room is The Beheading of St John the Baptist. This second one of the most arresting, with the play of colour and drama and use of chiaroscuro clear enough even for untrained me to appreciate.

Out in the sunlight we sought and found a bar which offered tapas and the local beer for €6, and settled in. It is one of the first types of beer that I have ever liked, and so I was in no rush to move on with our day, snacking on local delicacies and watching the tourists and locals pass us by.

Tapas and beer

Tapas and beer

A celebration of the longest day

There are two very important times of year in Sweden. One is the time of longest dark, and the other is the time of longest light. Both are celebrated with eating, drinking (and drinking), good company and the playing out of traditions that have long outlasted explanations. And, generally, joy.
We’ve been marking the lengthening of days for some time now, noticing that when we’re walking home late/early at night that the sun never properly sets, leaving the sky a hazy blue even down here out of sight of the Arctic circle. As of last week the balance tipped, and from now on the darkness with get darker and longer until we won’t be able to imagine relaxing in the sun on our balcony at 10:30pm.
A sad thought indeed. However before we and the rest of Sweden let ourselves dwell on that we all have a celebration. The day of longest light*, in which we eat, drink, enjoy good company, dance and admire a large somewhat phallic pole.

The garlanded Midsummer Pole

The garlanded Midsummer Pole

Midsummer! Or to be more precise, Midsummer’s Eve. Being the good little Swedish residents that we are, we had a picnic planned at Slottskogen, where we had celebrated the day last year. Loaded up with food, drink and a bbq we met our friends at the park and were soon settling in for an afternoon of merriment. There was cider, the lighting and subsequent going out of the bbq, napping in the sun and eating, which are fairly typical of any picnic. Slightly atypically for us, more or less the whole picnic was also in Swedish, which was the lingua franca between us and our Czech friends.
As we chatted and ate, the sun played hide and seek above us and we joked that the Summer had finally arrived during the warm patches of sunlight, and was replaced by Autumn as the clouds covered the sky. By looking to the north we could even see if we might get another moment of Summer and once past watch as it eventually drifted over the horizon. Though it had been nicer last year, we reminded ourselves in true Göteborsk fashion that it could always be worse.

After a few hours had passed, people began to gather around the garlanded pole set in the middle of the grass. Closer up we could see the two loops hanging from the cross piece, yellow and blue flowers tucked among the green foliage. Our attention was soon taken by the movements of the crowd, who began to spin in circles, some with three people and some with as many as 40. On a stage fiddlers, flutists and singers called out instructions and belted out the traditional songs. Among the crowds people in traditional costumes lead the dances, demonstrating the claps and kicks and leading their circles in twisting snake like lines, all while singing along. Many of those not in costume also seemed to know the words, and I can only assume that part of every Swedish child’s education involves learning the song about the drunk shoemaker, the one about the various pigs that you and I are, how to clean the house before going to church and of course the frog song.

Dancing crowds

Dancing crowds

I asked my mum about this, and her response would have been matched by everyone else on the field, which was that of course we sing songs about animals and drunk shoemakers. It’s Midsummer’s Eve, when we forget about the staidness of everyday life and give ourselves over to dancing, laughing and making fish noises. That is tradition after all; something we do as a group, that defines us and keeps us together, despite whatever silliness anyone else may think about it.

The young folk dancers leading the way

The young folk dancers leading the way

After at least an hour the dancing was over and the professionals took to the field. Most looked to be over 60 but were as spry as anything, and definitely knew what they were doing. They twirled, skipped and clapped to the applause of the crowd, with steps that I hope they’ll pass on to the other, younger costumed folk. There were no songs about animals, but rather folk jigs and reels that got your foot tapping and conjured images of an idyllic and possibly imaginary rural past, all green fields, mooing cows, clean kirtles and neatly ordered hedges.
As we had watched, we found a couple of friends in the crowd and spent the rest of the long patch of sunlight chatting and enjoying icecream as the light began to fade.

Before too long it was time to pack up, but before we went home we paid a visit to the animals on the hill. The first that we saw was an elk, lying down by a fence and not looking all that well. We were amazed as usual by its size and strange combination of elegance and ungainliness. We also saw the deer, ducks, swans, geese, goats and ponies, most of whom seemed to be trying to get some sleep despite the light and visitors.
As 9:30 passed and a sunset bloomed overhead we headed to the tram stop, hugging and waving our friends goodbye before stepping on our own tram and making our way home.

Another Midsummer’s Eve done, half the year has past and the lengthening of days has begun, at least until the next tipping of the balance in the dark of winter.

*Technically the celebrations don’t always take place on the solstice, and the dates are adapted each year to make a long weekend. It’s usually within a week of the solstice though.