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

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Sunshine in Málaga

A few months ago, staring out of the window at the dark skies and considering the possibility of the sun ever returning to us, my partner and I decided that we had to get away. Just for a few days, long enough to soak in the sun a little and get a taste of Spring. Last year we visited Rome, as a combined birthday present and escape to the sun, and this year for the same reasons we returned to the Mediterranean, and a country that neither of us had never visited.

It was my partner who decided on Málaga, a place that I’d never really thought that much about, and which conjured up images of dusty industrial parks and scrubby bush land (for those not familiar with the exciting industrial suburbs of Western Australia, consider yourself lucky). I have always had an interest in Spain, and so happily agreed.

We left on Friday night, amid a crowd of grey-haired explorers who seemed to be regulars. The man in the seat next to me on the plane over there had been 12 times already, and owned a house in a town just outside of Málaga. Once he realised that I was willing to listen (or at least not willing to tell him to stop talking) he proceeded to describe the surrounding areas, his house, his ‘lady’, good hiking areas, how much it cost to hire a car, the best places to eat and how long it took to get to Granada. He then showed me photos, mostly himself in front of dramatic landscapes and a pile of maps, pointing out nice villages and landmarks. We eventually landed and he disappeared with a bashful smile, as our fellow passengers did their usual headlong bag-grab-and-dash to the doors. On the tarmac the air was vaguely smokey, and thick with scents we didn’t recognise, a change from the clear air of Sweden. As we were the last arrival for the night it was easy to grab a cab and rumble off to the apartment where we would be staying.
As with our trip to Malmö, we were using Airbnb and again it worked like a charm. Our host met us at the door, showed us around and then left us to unwind. A quick trip up to the terrace revealed a breathtaking view of the city, from the dry river behind us to the walls of Gibralfaro on the hill, lit up in the crisp darkness. Having whet our appetite with the view, we then slept.

Morning over Málaga

Morning over Málaga

The next morning we began with a leisurely search for breakfast through sunny morning streets (just a quick warning; the word sunny may pop up a few times in this post. My excuse is winter and the fact that right now, behind me, sun is shining through the windows. It’s a northern Europe thing). Many places were closed, and when we found a tapas restaurant that we liked the look of with glasses of wine for £1 we popped in for a snack. Unfortunately the lady at the bar seemed unimpressed with our lack of Spanish and so, in a round about way, ignored us so we in turn, in a more direct way, took our custom elsewhere. A glass of fresh orange juice, an expresso and thick bread with cheese later we were over our snubbing and raring to explore the sights.

Málaga cathedral

Málaga cathedral

The first stop was the Roman amphitheatre which sits in the shade of Alcazaba. Just in front of that, visible through a triangle of glass, were the remains of stone basins used to make garum, the famous Roman condiment of rotten fish. I wonder if there was ever a whiff of it during a performance?

The amphitheatre, still in business

The amphitheatre, still in business

We sat on the steps for a little while, contemplating this and basking, and then climbed up into the citadel. The path twisted and turned through gates and arches, narrowing into dark passages and then opening into paths lined with orange trees. As we ascended we had views out over the city and the sea and could hear the loud strains of a Christian rock band playing by the harbour. Near the top we reached a garden overlooking the sea, with channels of water running to a bubbling fountain surrounded by shrubbery and climbing roses on pillars.

A fountain

A fountain

The gardens continued for the next few twisting levels, with pots of rosemary, fountains, channels, oranges and bowers heavy with years of growth. At the top we found the palace, a small maze of cool rooms around two open-air courtyards, one lined with orange trees and the other circling a pool. The crowds limited the sorts of photos that would have summed up the peaceful atmosphere it was trying to project, but it was still lovely and graceful and just the sort of place I would like to have if I had a summer palace in the Mediterranean.

Oranges in Spring

Oranges in Spring

After our leisurely stroll about the palace and citadel, were headed for the heights of Gibralfaro. It was reached via a winding, steep path up the hill, past eucalyptus trees and other tourists panting and taking off their winter layers. From a vantage point we had a view of the bull fighting ring, which filled me with a mix of distaste and historically relate interest, resembling as it did the ancient Roman equivalents. The sandy arenas and animal battles of the Empire haven’t quite disappeared yet.

Bull ring

Bull ring

By the time we reached the top we were feeling a little bit puffed and thirsty, so after a look around the walls and over them at the surrounding city and more distant hills, we found a place to rest and refresh ourselves. It was a small cafe, which we suspected of touristy expense and tastelessness, but which turned out to be the perfect place for a midafternoon break. We took wine and tapas, a bit of juice and an icecream and finally olives and more wine, while sitting in the sun and gazing out over the sea. The taste of herbs, warmth of the sun and sharpness of the wine blurred into a sort of bliss as we sat and did nothing much, and felt rather as though we had slipped into some sort of paradise.

View of the harbour

View of the harbour

And here is where I will leave this part of our Spanish journey, sitting in the sun and feeling the relaxation of a holiday seeping into our bones.