The Inquisition in Malta

The Inquisitor’s Judgement Seat

The Inquisitor’s Palace in Birgu (Vittoriosa) Malta, is apparently the only one in the world open to the public. Originally the building housed the Law courts of the Knights of St John until 1571, when they were left vacant as the Knights moved their centre of operations to Valletta.  In 1574, the newly appointed Inquisitor Mgr Dusina took up residence in Valletta on his arrival, but it soon became clear that the nature of his work necessitated having access to cells where those under investigation could be detained.

Power in Malta at the time was balanced between the Knights and the Bishop. The Knights had their own clergy and often the two ecclesiastical bodies were at loggerheads, neither falling under the other’s jurisdiction.

With the spread of Protestantism, the Holy See in Rome decided it needed a representative in Malta separate from the Bishop, with special responsibility for the religious “health” of the Catholic citizens. In effect, the resultant office of Inquisitor effectively broke the stalemate of power, often acting as arbitrator. In such quarrels, the Inquisitor’s view usually prevailed as he had the most support in the Holy See in Rome.

The role of the Inquisitors was to ensure that the Maltese citizens did not get contaminated by non-catholic influences. In the 16th century, this was the Protestant doctrines spreading through Europe; in the 17th, it was the influence, seen to affect women in particular, of the many Muslim slaves who were purported to use magic and sorcery; in the 18th, when the Inquisition was declining, it busied itself with a perceived increase of blasphemy, bigamy, and apostasy to Islam.

The Inquisitor’s Palace in Birgu was initially a functional building, but as successive owners put their own stamp on it, it became a good example of noble houses of the period. For example, one Inquisitor added a staircase designed to generate awe/respect depending on the social status of the guest.  The higher his social standing, the lower down the staircase the inquisitor stood to greet him.   It was the first thing seen as visitors arrived.

Staircase of the Inquisitor’s Palace

He was often silhouetted against the light from the window behind, rendering his appearance all the more sinister to those in dread!

Contrary to the tales of the Spanish Inquisition, the Roman Inquisition in Malta was a much less punitive entity. Tours of the building include the cells, which surprisingly were hygienic, each one having its own “necessary”, with waste dropped down a dedicated chute. The beds were spartan but clean, and cells usually had two inmates although there were communal cells for the rowdies arrested for drunkenness and related misdemeanours. Men and women were kept well separated.

The cells were not always fit for purpose as the notice below tells, and needed renovation!

Notice on Prison Cell Reconstruction in Inquisitor’s Palace

Once led into the tribunal room, the prisoner, who had to duck under the low lintel to guarantee a bow toward the Inquisitor, was faced with the Judgement Seat. If a confession was not forthcoming, he was sent back to his or her cell and the possibility of “torture”. Despite the fearsome appearance of the noose in the picture below, this merely consisted of hauling the prisoner up by his wrists until the discomfort was considered sufficient to make him comply. Punishments meted out after confession were not major, rather they were humiliating. For example, an unfaithful person would have to declare their infidelity loudly and repetitively on the steps of the church for the period of a day. Serious misdemeanours resulted in similar penances for a week. There was no question of the rack or other awful instruments of torture favoured by the Spanish Inquisitors being used. The surroundings were designed to make the prisoners uncomfortable, although they were well fed, so were not hungry.

The Questioning Chamber

As well as a prison, the Palace was the home of the Inquisitor and over the centuries this building became a good example of the architecture of the period.

The Colonnaded Courtyard

This quote from the Heritage Malta brochure describes it very well.

“Besides choosing furniture that complements the elegantly frescoed rooms of the Piano Nobile, such as eighteenth-century writing bureaus, sculptured cabinets and intarsio chests of drawers, the building also includes a reconstruction of one of the most important spaces in an early modern Palace: the dining room.  Accompanying the centrally-located table and velvet-cushioned high back chairs are, amongst others, colourful period majolica jars and a selection of silver table-ware favoured by aristocratic and high-ranking ecclesiastics of the time.”

The Piano Nobile was a modern concept and would now be considered a salon, or reception room for dignitaries. I will leave you with the beauty of the room, which has, as a fresco around the tops of the walls, the coats of arms of all the Inquisitors who resided there. In Malta, if you do not look up, you miss the most wonderful sights.

The Piano Nobile

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Stormy Weather

The Porters certainly chose a memorable year to move to Malta. We have had the coldest, wettest winter here for 90 years, the hottest summer for 60+ years, and now we have had the worst storm in living memory This last is the main subject of this newsletter, but first a catch-up of other bits and pieces.

Sad news on our turtle front. The beach on which her eggs were laid had a deep-set layer of blue clay which, combined with the storm’s low temperatures and intense rain resulted in the death of the developing baby turtles in the egg. Examination showed that they were quite far int0 their development and had things been different, some may have hatched. If the female returns next year, some other plan will have to be adopted if the little ones are to survive.

Staying on the natural history front, the migrating birds are coming through now. The swallows were the first harbingers of the annual flight south of the travelling bird population, and every morning, at breakfast as we look out over our valley down to the sea, we are treated to the acrobatics of the martins who do a good job of keeping the mosquitoes and other fliers from our coffee! Thankfully our dragonflies are too big for them to tackle and we still see their scintillating reds and blues as they pass safely by.

We think we have seen an eagle – which is not far-fetched – as many do pass through here, but it was not a definitive identification. A beautiful mysterious visitor has left us flummoxed. It was a small warbler, with typical pointed beak, had a sleek grey/shading to green back, very light breast and the clearest cream handlebar-type mustache which seemed to be curling under the cheeks. We could not find it in our book of Maltese native birds, and do not have our other field guides here. So, we’ll have to wait until our return to the UK to try to identify it. If anyone reading this has an idea what it might be, we would love to know.

Now to the storm. This was horrendous if you were affeted by the sheer destructive force, but quite magnificent if you wre tucked up watching it – which we almost were. We discovered that there is no lip at our front door to keep heavy rain out. Lawrence and our dinner guest had to investigate when we heard the dreaded, regular, soggy plop-plop of drips hitting the sofa under the staircase as the water wended its way from the front door across the landing to then drop on the head of any unsuspecting person sitting on the sofa below! Fortunately we found it before the torrent arrived or we would have had a cataract flowing down our stairs. Every towel was used to contain the flood.

Having saved the furniture,we had a lovely evening and night watching the biggest electrical storm I have ever witnessed. Instead of writing descriptively about it, the best way to show you its enormity is with the following pictures which speak for themselves. Thanks to John Navarro for sending them to me.

Awesome in all senses.

These pictures can be seen in greater detail by clicking on the picture. Looking at this one made me almost feel the static. This was taken in the south-west of Malta. Very scary.

Beautiful, but potentially deadly.

No-one was hit by this strike, thankfully, but this photo captures the terrifying beauty of the storm.

Mediterranean twister in Birzebbuga in the south

This looks more like the Caribbean, but it was taken looking out to Marsaxlokk Bay.

Malta not Venice

Hard to believe this was a busy street. The next few are not so calm.

Aerial view

This is one of the busiest roundabouts in Malta. Confusing even when you can see the white lines.

Expensive!

The driver made it safely out, but it was not an easy exit.

In company.

Not always safety in numbers.

Scary stuff

I don’t fancy taking my kayak or canoe down this one!

Anyone for hop-on, hop-off sightseeing?

 

Drainoff trench.

When we first arrived in Malta, I wondered why there were so many large run-off channels. I know now!

Aftermath!

As the water recedes, the vehicles are accessible, but enormous clean-up jobs were needed.

Infrastructure damage.

Not just vehicles were damaged. Homes were flooded out and roads were destroyed. The Maltese in their pragmatic fashion had everything running in a basic way very quickly.

Tunnel vision

This tunnel is one of the most frequently used on the island. It is a main thoroughfare, which was totally flooded out. The lights stayed on, as you can see!

All in all, it was an experience that holidaymakers would not have expected. We sat up all night watching a display of sheet lightning that rivalled the Aurora Borealis – which I have yet to see in the real world. The power of the storm made us realise that if Mother Nature decides to vent her wrath, there is not much we can do about it. There was one fatality from a lightning strike, and many near misses with the water, but there is cause to be thankful that the cost of this storm to Malta was more economic than human.

I will be going into blog silence for a few weeks as I am returning to the UK for knee surgery. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible. Until then, very best wishes to everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Turning Turtle!

On June 20th at 10.30pm on the sands of Gnejna Bay (pron je-ney-na) those revellers who stayed on this lovely beach in the north of Malta to barbecue, drink and party into the night were blessed with a sight not seen there for around 100 years.

Gnejna Bay – Turtle nesting site.

A loggerhead turtle dragged itself up from the sea, walked a sort distance, dug a deep hole in the damp sand and laid 76 eggs before scooping the sand back over them and returning to the water. It did not seem disturbed by the flashes from cameras and mobile phones. Those people there asked for a policeman and a nature warden to witness the event with the result that the site was declared a temporary conservation area with immediate effect.

Loggerhead turtle seen on 20th June at Gnejna

Resident foreign experts consulted that night by the conservation authorities deemed the nest to be too close to the waterline with the risk of the eggs being washed away, so they were carefully moved to another hole dug at a safer distance from the sea. Other reasons for the move were that the laying area was in the middle of the most heavily used part of the beach, and also the underlying clay in that area would heat up in the sun during the day and overheat the eggs, making hatching less likely. The area has been cordoned off and a 24 hour watch has been set until the eggs hatch. Lights and loud noise is now prohibited on what was once a revellers beach. Everyone is fascinated and proud that a turtle has once again chosen to lay in Gnejna, so no-one is upset at the interruption to their partying.

76 turtle eggs being move to safer location

Loggerheads live 35 years or more and usually return to their birthplace to lay their clutches of eggs. They lay 2-5 clutches a year, then have a couple of fallow years before laying again. So, our turtle may return. Whether this was its birthplace or not is a point of speculation, but certainly there are no officially recorded sightings for many decades.

The eggs hatch about 60 days after laying. The infant turtle breaks the shell with its “egg tooth”, a temporary structure on its beak which disappears gradually after hatching. It then digs its way to the surface and heads for the sea, guided by the reflections of the moon and stars on the water.

This is where the importance of not having artificial lights around is critical. Baby turtles are instinctively drawn to light. In their unpolluted habitats, the only light they have is that of the moonlight or the stars on the sea which is much more reflective than the land. Were they to go to land, they would be prey for night predators, suffer dehydration and exhaustion in their random attempts to find the sanctuary of the sea.

Turtle hatchling – Green, not Loggerhead

So flashes from cameras and phones, spotlights are banned, as are barbecues and bonfires. The necessary security lights have been specially shielded to ensure the tiny hatchlings have the best chance possible of making it to the sea.

So, our eggs should be hatching soon if everyone’s efforts have borne fruit. I will let you know what happens.

One final interesting fact about the turtle eggs is that their sex is temperature dependent. If they are laid in cool damp sand, the majority will be male. If the sand is warm, the hatchlings will be predominantly female.

I bet you did not know that now, did you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Moved in Malta

Well, after a serious silence which was the result of a very busy May – tourguiding a travel group of 86 people for a week, sorting out various traumas to my constantly problematical knees, and moving house, here I am with another posting, which will focus on the area around our new home.

We left our Rabat apartment finally on 31st May, with some regretful backward glances to its marbled luxury, and moved into a rural retreat high in the hills of Wardija. It is one of  four apartments set in the grounds of Palazzo Promontorio, which is used as a wedding venue at weekends for the months of June, July, and August, but is wonderfully tranquil the rest of the time. We overlook a fertile cultivated valley which runs down to St Paul’s Bay, with the Mediterranean beyond, and have two terraces which overlook this view. One is lower, narrow, colonnaded the length of the apartment, and in full sun till mid-afternoon. The other is on an upper level and gets the sun till around 7pm. The apartment is all on one level, but is entered from a marble staircase, which accesses only the front door and the top terrace. We have two bedrooms, but one of them is destined to be a dining room, and, delight, a small open fire in the living room which is in two sections divided by an archway. Much more Maltese in feel than our previous apartment which was very modern.

Colonnade Terrace

The apartment is partially furnished, which gives me scope to put my own stamp on it, if we decide to stay. If so, we would probably ship out our artwork, rugs etc. Our new landlady is Rita whose horses have won many trophies at the races here and she has two dogs, Bruce and George, who have adopted us. So we have the fun of pets but not the ultimate responsibility. One of Rita’s old champion trotters is stabled close-by too, and our apartment is surrounded by a small vineyard and orchard.

Staircase from front door down to apartment.

We have breakfast on the terrace each morning, watching the farmers tend their fields – they still clear them with mattocks – and gather their produce, before going off to their proper day job. They return in the evening to finish up. Most have dogs with them, and it is lovely to see the fields go from barrenness to a fulsome crop of courgettes and other produce in a matter of a few days. We have constant varied birdsong and enormous iridescent blue dragonflies flit past us as we down our coffee and eat the delicious croissants from the local bakery – situated in a very good, convenient supermarket at the base of our 2 mile long hill.

One end of pool

On the other side of St Paul’s Bay the ground rises to one of the highest points on the island and here is found the Selmun Palace, dominating the Mistra valley which leads down into Mistra Bay, a small offshoot of St Paul’s Bay. The palace looks like a fortified building, but although constructed to appear so, it was not.

Other end of pool, plus thumb!

Grand Master Wignacourt of the Knights of St John set up a foundation to ransom Christian slaves, each of whom could be redeemed for 70 scudi. While a worthy cause, there was not much in the coffers, but a wealthy local Lady, Caterina Vitale died in 1619 and left the land known as the Selmun region to the knights provided they ransomed 2 slaves, via their organisation known as the Monte de Redenzione degli Schiavi.

The palace was built on the land in the early 18th Century, by Wignacourt and was let out to individual knights for recreation and hunting the small wild animals such as rabbits that abounded there.

Selmun Palace

The building has 2 floors with 4 turrets and embrasures to simulate a fortress, hopefully to deter any lurking muslim corsairs from invading. The three doors in the facade serve different functions, one having been adapted as a window, the central one retaining its function as the main entrance, and the third giving access to the chapel found inside the building. The chapel is dedicated to Our Lady of Ransom, appropriately, and the coat of arms of the Monte de Redenzione is sited above the central door of the five that open onto the balcony which surrounds the entire first floor.

Adjacent to the Selmun Palace is the Selmun Palace Hotel, which was once a very fine hotel owned by Air Malta, but since that airline’s financial reconstruction, it has now been decommissioned and is awaiting a buyer.

So that is a little bit about the area in which we now live. More to come.

 

 

 

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March Malta Moments

Our cultural journey in Malta continued with a concert in St Pauls Anglican pro-Cathedral in Valletta.

This is an interesting building which to me has the feeling of an outside space in its nave, which is divided from the choir by Ionic columns on each side.  Each row of columns is joined by lintels  leaving the portico to the altar open. I thought the feature resembled the Brandenburg Gate, but that is a personal whimsy. It is a very open, light airy church with very high ceilings and a modern feel.

 

Interior of St Pauls showing pillars

 As a pro-Cathedral it has cathedral status and is one of three cathedrals in the diocese of Gibraltar. It was commissioned by the Dowager Queen Adelaide during a visit to Malta in the 19th Century when she found out that there was no Anglican place of  worship on the island. It was built on the site of the Auberge d’Allemagne, the home of the German Knights Hospitaller. Indeed the current choir rehearses in the barrel vaulted Undercroft, which housed stables and storerooms for the Auberge. Queen Adelaide laid the foundation stone on 20 March 1839 and her banner hangs above the choir stalls. Due to its spire which rises over 60 metres, it is a Valletta landmark. It was built with Maltese limestone in the neo-classical style and inside, it has both Corinthian and Ionic columns, the latter forming the portico between nave and choir – my “gate”. The internal dimensions of the building are 33.5 metres x 20.4 metres – an airy space.

St Pauls Spire on the Valletta Skyline

The organ, whose restoration the above-mentioned concert was in aid of – has an illustrious history of its own. Built in Chester by Bernard Smith, it originally resided in Chester Cathedral and was played by Handel on his way to Dublin for the first performance of his Messiah. After many rebuildings only the organ case is now original.

The oak panels around the High Altar are a memorial to the Allied units which took part in the defence of Malta between 1940 and 1943 and twelve flags hang in the aisles representing amongst others the Royal Air Force, the British Merchant Navy, and the Royal Navy.

It is a very interesting building with good acoustics which made it a superb location for the chamber music concert, featuring works by Bach, Haydn and Elgar. All were lovely and expertly performed by the ensemble, but in particular the Haydn Horn Concerto in D major was very special. The french horn is not an easy instrument, but the quality of the sound in the performance by Jose Garcia Gutierrez was truly like honey, with no jagged elements to detract from the beauty of the piece.

Easter

Easter has come and gone with the traditional processions we described last year, but we visited another town this time and as well as the spectacular tableaux depicting the story of the Crucifixion, we saw in reality the use of an ages-old musical substitute for the bells which cease to toll over the Easter period. This was the Cuqlajta (pronounced chooklighta). This class of instruments is based on two pieces of wood clapping together when shaken or flailed. The simplest resemble a child’s toy but have a very serious purpose as they are used instead of the bells to draw the faithful to worship in the churches. We went to a talk given by one of the leading traditional musical authorities of Malta in Mdina. The poster shown below contains a picture of one of the many kinds of ċuqlajta.

 

Showing a simple decorated ċuqlajta

 

They can also be a flat piece of wood with a simple swinging longitudinal handle made of metal which clashes against the wood when swung rythmically. Similar instruments have been found made of bone and ivory in Egyptian and Chinese medieval locations. The most complex are like the classic waterhammer, where rotating a wheel causes “hammers” inside it to rise and fall down on a baseplate making a loud report. Multiple hammers produce a huge sound like a football rattle! Some of the larger wheels can be 6 feet across and are usually turned manually at speed by a relay of young men whose rhythm never falters. In more recent times, these larger instruments, situated in the belfries can be powered electrically although that is the exception. The one we saw was manually turned and made a huge angry buzzing for hours.

Here, the sound and the action to make it is called “Grinding Judas’s Bones” – a reflection of the punishment of Judas for his betrayal of Christ.

It was a most informative talk and our understanding of these simple and ancient instruments was increased by hearing it as a background to the town’s solemn Good Friday parade.

Spring

Spring is well under way in Malta by Easter and the yellow phase of the mimosa, giant fennel and cape sorrel give way to the reds of poppies, and deep pinks of campion and the ubiquitous groundcovering Silla.

Erba sulla or French Honeysuckle

This lovely plant, called Silla in Malta and Erba Sulla in Italy, is also known as French Honeysuckle. It’s many properties make it an interesting and valuable entity. It is found in the clifftop and rough exposed areas of rural Malta and has the important property of preventing erosion of the very sparse soil in those regions due to its abundant root systems and creeping foliage.

In Italy, it is planted as a crop as it increases milk yield in cows, and is used by sheep farmers for hay as its natural anti-bloating properties are beneficial, together with the added benefit of providing natural protection from intestinal worms (Ugh!). These attributes have led to it now being widely planted and used in New Zealand by sheep farmers.

It is also an important honey “crop”. The honey produced, apart from its great taste has regulating effects – both diuretic and laxative! On that educational note, I shall leave you until my next instalment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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February Update

Well, we chose the wrong year to move to Malta if we were looking for a mild winter. This one was the worst for 40 years with rain, wind, cold and hail! February was the wettest on record for 90 years, and there were very few full days of sunshine although it did cheer us ocasionally. When we arrived here last April, I never thought that I would need to buy an electric blanket, but it has been a necessary luxury.

Another climatic feature I was not prepared for was the winter humidity. I have always associated humidity with warm rainy climes and steamy vegetation, but the limestone blocks, of which most of the older and many of the new buildings are constructed, act like sponges for the ambient damp and exude it into the rooms, which are often frigidly cold. We are fortunate to live in a modern building with good air-conditioning units which have a heating and a dehumidifying setting, and once we realised this, our lives became a lot more comfortable. The Maltese are a hardy people who seem to tolerate the cold better than us, but even they brought out the fur coats and boots this season amid statements that this is the worst it has been in living memory!

However, instead of snuggling down into the electric blanket, we braved the conditions and continued our bridge and social whirl, often ploughing through torrential rain and into puddles hiding gigantic potholes to reach our destination. The road from our apartment block to the main road had more pothole than flat surface, which our german car’s suspension did nothing to alleviate! Every time there is a heavy rainfall, there appears another tranche of potholes, sunken tarmac and long linear cracks in the roads here. I have come to the conclusion that this is not due to poor filling in of the defects, although road repairs are of the patching variety. The bedrock on which the roads are built is the same porous limestone described above. When the water table is high the pockets in the rock get eroded and when it drops the thin walls of the pockets collapse, taking the road structure down into smooth hollows which later break down into large potholes. I stress that this is only my theory, and not necessarily scientific fact. The biggest pothole I have seen was two feet deep and three across, with linear cracks spreading from it. This was on a hillside road and a full repair was done to the whole stretch of road to avert half of one carriageway falling off the side of the hill. The local authorities are very quick to repair the damage, thank goodness.

January and February saw us continue our exploration, mostly through Lawrence’s walks with the Harrison Lewis walking group and his walking circumnavigation of the entire coast of Malta.

There were several archaeological finds to engage us, as usual. Lawrence visits/discovers the sites with the group or on his walk, and later brings me to see the parts that are easily reached by car.

The first very interesting site was that of six neolithic tombs cut into the rocky (limestone obviously) hills above Xemxija. These each comprised a shallow entrance tunnel about a metre across leading to a more extensive oval or lobed cavernous space. The ones we saw were about 4×3 metres in floor area and had low ceilings, in which it was impossible to stand upright. One had steps cut in the floor of the sloping entrance tunnel to aid the portage of the bodies into the tombs.

Stepped entrance to neolithic tomb chamber

Pot sherds and restorable vessels were found in them dating from the Ġgigantja phase (3500BC). We saw these at their best in bright sunlight with spring flowers emerging from the hardy evergreen groundcovering. Made a note to myself to dig out my plant book when I got home.

The second interesting monument dates from the days of the Knights of St John. It is the Red Tower  on the Marfa Ridge, which is the northernmost ridge in Malta. It was built by  Grand Master Lascaris to watch and guard the straits between Malta and Gozo. Today it is managed by the National Trust of Malta – Din l-Art Helwa.

It is also known as St Agatha’s tower, she of the catacombs of Rabat, whose refusal to marry a non-christian Roman governor resulted in her being burned as a martyr, having had both breasts cut off. Brutal times for those of an unfavored faith. A small chapel was housed in the tower dedicated to her.

There are several theories about why it was painted red, but the accepted one is that the tower was easier to see from the other watchtowers before and beyond it in the chain of lookout posts around the coast.

It was accessed by a drawbridge originally, but the restoration has endowed it with a fixed wooden bridge for safety and ease of access. In troubled times there was a garrison of 49 composed of knights, their sergeants and servants. Five cannon were stationed on the roof, which was accessed by a spiral staircase. I expect the cannon were winched up to the flat roof on pulleys, although they could have been taken up piecemeal and assembled there, I suppose.

Unlike many of the other fortifications, this tower had an 8-pointed dry stone wall built around it for defensive purposes.

Red Tower from the air showing star-shaped defensive wall

Inside it has vaulted ceilings and the National Trust of Malta man it with volunteers. There are many coats of arms of the Knights and an internal well together with beautiful vaulting in the ceilings make it an aesthetic visit as well as an informative one. There are glimpses of old beauty, such as the window below. Thanks to Dave Thursfield for the photo.

Beautiful scrollwork and vaulting inside the Red Tower

In the period of British occupation, it continued its defensive purpose, being manned during both world wars. In more recent times it was used as a radar station by the Armed Forces of Malta, but now it is run and maintained as a national monument.

It is a prominent landmark in the north of the island, being visible for miles around, thanks to its elevated position. At €2 admission, it is great value. Also, the road that goes past the Red Tower is a small little used road, but leads to one of the most beautiful parts of the island, where there is a faultline in the bedrock, and the terminal headland is called Ras il-Qammieh (Jumper’s Head!)

As well as our explorations, we attended various social events. Two memorable ones were in the Manoel theatre which I shall describe fully in a later post. The first was a harpsichord concert performed on the Manoel’s specially commissioned instrument. The programme was baroque and was performed by a most virtuosic frenchwoman, Beatrice Martin. It was unfortunate that the theatre was only quarter-full, but this was no reflection on the quality of the performance, rather that it was St Valentine’s night and the coldest night of the year here. Despite being well wrapped up and being in a box’s more confined therefore warmer space, you could still see our breath in front of us. It did not seem to phase Ms Martin, though, whose fingers sped over the keys in the final virtuosic piece, in a veritable blur. From our vantage point we could see her music but our eyes could not follow as fast as she was playing. Despite the cold, none of us would have missed it for anything.

On a warmer – just – night we saw a fabulous Argentinian Tango performance, by a trio of dancers who played out through dance the age-old love triangle of two men and a woman. We knew the performance would be sizzling and dramatic and were not disappointed. The real surprise, a wonderful one, was the “five piece band” backing them, as described in the advertising. This turned out to be a Balkan group consisting of illustrious professors of music, playing a bandoneon (Argentinian/Uraguayan accordion-type instrument), an electric guitar, a grand piano, a violin and a double bass. Every one of those instruments swept brilliantly from poignancy to exhuberance, and the musicians’ sheer skill created such atmoshere that on occasion the band rather than the dancers were the focus of the audience. The pianist was the wife of the bandoneon player and she was dressed in a long shimmering golden gown which was hidden by her grand piano until she stood to sing the sultry songs of the tango culture. It was a stunning performance and thanks to more clement weather and a fanatical tango following here, the house was full and sold out.

A final treat was a baroque double flute and cello concert in the Palazzo de Piro in nearby Mdina.  It was part of Carnival and the musicians dressed in period costume. On arrival on a cold and wet, windy night we were greeted by a glass of chilled (delicious) white wine and ushered into the salon, where we were treated to lovely music and colourful performers. The flautists were a husband and wife we had heard before – he has studied with Sir James Galway – and the cellist was the head of the cello department here in the Johann Strauss School of Music.

So, once again this great island has stimulated my historical and musical tastebuds. It really is a great place!

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Malta Continued

As we have become more established here, we have found that participating in the wonderfully full social/activity life here, combined with visitors – wall to wall from October to December – precludes a regular update of this newsletter. So it will continue, but more sporadically, as items of interest crop up.

Christmas loomed large, and since Christmas in Malta has its own idiosyncrasies, I will begin there. Malta is a very Catholic country, but as I have said elsewhere, although devout, there is a strong element of fun in most of their celebrations.

The first thing that strikes a tourist at this time of year are the “illuminations” which could put Blackpool’s to shame. Every town has colourful lights in shapes of trailing comets, stars, trees, angels, waterfalls etc etc – the list is endless. They really are a delight. There is almost an advent calendar approach to the decorations, with each day resulting in a new layer of streamers, balloons, lights, stuffed animals, gaily decorated Christmas trees in all the towns and culminating in the sudden manifestation of a massive public ice-rink surrounded by a “german Christmas market” close to the day in the Sliema shopping centre –  complete with gluhwein, hot food in rolls, hot chocolate and roasted chestnuts.

Father Christmas makes many an appearance too, but not upright or seated as elsewhere in Europe. Here he has the demeanour of a burglar in a red and white suit carrying a black swag-bag swung over his shoulder as he clambers (affixed invisibly) over balconies, parapets, and hangs from window sills, drain pipes and sundry other ledges by his plastic/inflatable fingernails. He always has a jolly smile on his face, though.

The traditional, religious celebrations centre around Christmas Eve midnight mass, but in the run-up to Christmas, Malta has a special feature. This is the Maltese crib, which is, in summary a nativity scene accompanied by elements of day to day Maltese rural life. These cribs are extraordinary and have a long history.

Most houses have one as well as a Christmas tree, and these are small but complex affairs. Those to be found in churches and large public buildings are much bigger, often greater than life-size.

Cribs were first introduced to Malta from Italy in the middle ages. The first truly Maltese crib was built in our local town of Rabat in 1617, and the Benedictine convent of St Peter in the Silent City (nearby Mdina) houses and treasures one dating from 1670. At around the same time, one man made a crib with moving parts powered by water. The originals had Italian buildings represented and the figures used in the tableaux were of expensive porcelain. As the crib grew in popularity, the Maltese replaced the foreign buildings with more local items e.g. flour windmills, wells and animal pens and swapped the porcelain for less expensive plaster. Nowadays, the Maltese ingenuity produces cribs in many shapes, sizes and materials. There are many crib exhibitions where local people place their efforts – all very good – on show for the public. In one such exhibition I saw cribs ranging from tiny glass figures in an eggshell decorated opulently in the Faberge style,  to huge, greater than life-size moving figures including a blacksmith shoeing a horse, his movements and that of the other figures powered by electricity. Papier-mache , wool, wood, glass, pebble,newspaper and much more are  all used to great artistic effect.

Two special cribs worth a mention are the Living Crib, where the figures are played by locals with real animals and a real baby in the structure. They “work shifts” round the clock and the big one in Gozo was said to have involved over 1000 people. The other one is a massive crib built from salt, which formed the centre-piece of the Christmas Fair at the Ta’ Qali sports/conference centre down the hill from us. The ingenuity of these folk knows no bounds.

By the mid 20th century, cribs were deemed no longer fashionable, and Christmas was losing its charisma. A local priest, George Preca in 1921 organised a procession through Ħamrun in which a life-size figure of the baby Jesus was paraded through the streets on the shoulders of four local boys. The people crowded Ħamrun’s poorly lit streets and brought any light source they could use, including palm frond torches, bicycle lamps (gas powered then!), Venetian lights, and oil lamps so that they could shed light on the baby as it was paraded through the town. It was an instant success with people of all ages and has become an integral part of the pre- Christmas pageantry in most towns, as well as helping to reinstate the crib as a celebratory reminder of the religious story of Christmas.

One final note on the cribs, especially the domestic ones, which are usually made out of natural materials. The tradition is to sow wheat, grain and millet onto cotton pads in a flat pot, water and leave in the dark until grass-like shoots appear. The “crop” or grassy area is then placed in the correct position in the crib.

Christmas church services have a few idiosyncrasies here too. The figure of the baby is put onto the main altar of the church at midnight on Christmas Eve for the celebration of Midnight Mass, and the three wise men are added to the crib at Epiphany.

The sermon of the Midnight Mass  service is often delivered by a child aged 7 – 10, instead of the priest. The children learn it by heart for 4 – 6 weeks before the ceremonials, and tell the story of the nativity and try to give it some personal relevance to touch the hearts of the congregation. George Sapiano was an altar boy who delivered the first of these sermons in 1883 in Luqa.

Christmas food is varied. Traditionally, the Maltese housewife kept her fattest rooster for the Christmas table, which was customarily too big for the domestic oven and, together with that of her neighbours was roasted in the ovens of the local bakery, dedicated to that purpose for the day. Vegetables would be roasted with it and pudding was a traditional treacle ring, and the meal would be finished with a hot chestnut and cocoa soup. British rule from 1800 to 1964 saw this traditional fare ousted for the more familiar, turkey with trimmings, Christmas pud and mince pies. Italian pannetone now runs Christmas cake a close second.

My  final element in this description of the traditions of Malta at Christmas is that of charitable giving. It is a time of generosity and under the patronage of the President of Malta, the Community Chest Fund which is a charitable fund, sets up a tent in Freedom Square in Valletta. It is manned by volunteers who encourage passers-by to make  donations of cash, which is in turn distributed to the needy in keeping with a true spirit of Christmas. This is yet another fascinating aspect of Malta, where the emphasis is on community and kindness is the norm.

For the record, Lawrence and I  amalgamated the two cultures in our christmas dinner. Instead of  turkey we had  lampuki pie (a local fish speciality) and Christmas pud for dessert. Felt right somehow. So, that is that for another year. Not sure what I have left to write about next Christmas, but something will doubtless sprout up!

Until next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Weeks 22-26 Hectic September

Well, here I am back again. September has had so much crammed into it that it feels about 3 months long instead of one.
Lawrence has done three walks, two back to back in the company of our dear friend Lizzie, so now he has now covered about a quarter of his circumnavigation of the island. If you’d like to see his journeys, go to http://legsit.com where you will find great pictures and a sparse commentary!

September was a month of new beginnings. The temperature dropped a bit and the humidity rose to unprecedented levels to the extent that folk who normally breezed through the Maltese summer complained of dissolving in the unusual conditions. My local lace hand-fans were in frequent use and spared both my blushes and my tissues. The air conditioning in the car ran overtime and on occasions being in transit, by car or by the new air-conditioned (cold) buses, was the most comfortable option. We blamed it all on the fickleness of La Nina, and carried on regardless.

Our first new experience was to play bridge at the Penthouse bridge club. This is the less serious of the two bridge clubs in Malta, and hence more friendly. Our friend Barbara who is chairman of the club had given us a foretaste of duplicate bridge – which is the only sort played in bridge clubs in Malta – but it was with great trepidation that we attended our first session. This was a very well organised affair and although we were a bit slow, we managed quite well and enjoyed ourselves. Subsequent sessions found us more relaxed and we are enjoying it tremendously. There are a mixture of players who are very good, good,and average. Lawrence and I always play together, as we are the only ones who play the Acol system. Everyone else plays 5-card major openers and a strong no-trump. We have also found another couple to play bridge once weekly, so hopefully we will improve soon.

Our Sunday evenings took a pleasant turn when my singing teacher introduced us to the delights of the reception-type €12 buffet at the Palazzo Parisio. This fabulous old palazzo is the home of the Baroness of Tabria, Christiane Ramsay Scicluna and her daughter, who run the business. A very polished fine dining restaurant, lovely lunch venue and a cafe are housed  in its buildings and grounds. The summer evening buffets were held in the vast gardens. The illuminated fountains, candlelit tables scattered over the lawns, and the scent of the jasmine, bougainvillea and exotic palms together with the muslin draped areas all created a romantic, calm, and convivial place to meet for the free cocktail that was included in the entry fee, and the finger-food buffet. Just a delight. These summer idylls have stopped now, but will soon recommence for the colder season in the vaulted cellars which have their own particular charm. Can’t wait!

Our next new departure was our Argentinian Tango class. Now you very well may ask what someone with my orthopoedic history is doing learning a dance that on Strictly Come Dancing seems to be vigorous, high kicking, speedy and flamboyant. Well, I do the flamboyant bit anyway, but I was so pleased to hear that the dramatic “end-game” of the dance has very slow, stable beginnings. One leans into one’s partner, always has one foot on the floor and moves at the pace of a slow, slinky walk. Whoopee!! Jax will not fall over.

The venue for the Tango class is St James’Cavalier. In the time of the knights of St John, this was built as a gun-battery to help protect the Grand Harbour. It was an enormous high platform composed of rubble and faced with limestone. In later centuries, it was hollowed out for use as war rooms, notably during the 2nd World War. Today it is a venue for activities and the arts, e.g. the live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York are screened there. If you would like to read a bit more about this fascinating building go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_James_Cavalier where you can find much more detail.

Back to Tango. While you can learn the steps with a regular partner, as soon as they are walked through sufficiently to please the teachers, we have to change partners. That is a good thing as it means you have to know your own steps and cannot rely on your partner to guide you. However, trying to do your steps with someone who does not know theirs or who does not have a good sense of rhythm can be a bit difficult. Still. There is a milonga held every Wednesday night at the Phoenicia Hotel, and now that we know a little bit we will go along there and practise what we have been taught in the class. There is no teaching and up to 70 people turn up, so we can lose ourselves in the crowd if necessary.

A highlight of the month was a jazz concert held at It-Torri Ta’ Lanzun in Mensija. The singer was Claudette who used to sing professionally and her friend Dominic who was a first rate jazz pianist and accompanist. They performed a series of old jazz favorites, in the open air in the courtyard of the Torri, again surrounded by the warm limestone walls and their covering of glorious white bougainvillea, as the night darkened, the stars came out and the moon rose over the tower. Fabulous canapes and  finger food were served together with free-flowing wine after the performers ended their concert. Much money was raised for the charity supported by the Military and Hospitaller Order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem, whose headquarters the Torri is. St Lazarus is the patron saint of lepers. In addition to its other charitable work, the Order continues to play a supportive role to lepers around the world.

The Torri itself is a typical military tower of its time. The name literally means “Tower of the Lance” and was originally built to defend against buccaneers. You can read a little more and see some pictures here.

Finally, we had the good fortune to be invited to the home of some friends in Mqabba to view the Malta Air Show from their rooftop. Their house is a delightful traditional Maltese building with vaulted roof in the living room, which was originally a mill room. These mill rooms can be high vaulted- large headroom, or low vaulted- take care not to bang your head. The house had rooms on many staged levels and there were three rooftops, all reached by the traditional well-worn limestone steps from which to view the display.

First to present themselves were the Italian equivalent of the Red Arrows, who gave an amazing display, with multi-coloured smoke trails and “Top Gun” stunts by the individual pilots. The noise was deafening and it took me a while to realise that I could not track them by their sound. I had to look well ahead of the sound to see them, so fast were they travelling. There were search and rescue displays, helicopters and the newest member of Malta’s Search and Rescue team was introduced to the audience. It was in fact a rescue/hospital plane. The last display was given by the 9-strong Swiss aerobatic team. It was a more refined display than the  jets, but no less impressive, notable for the precision and exactitude with which the pilots held their station relative to their fellow pilots. It brought to mind the differences in the perceived national characteristics of the two countries.

So, apart from the usual day to day business, those are our September highlights. As you can tell, we are still very much in love with Malta. More to come soon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Maritime Catch-up weeks 18 – 21

After our visit to San Anton Gardens, we took the popular harbour tour from Sliema, round Marsamxett harbour, passing Manoel Island, now  a boat yard, but which in former days  was an isolation hospital for the Knights of St John.

Knights Isolation Hospital, Manoel Island

Then out around Fort St Elmo of Great Siege (1565) fame and into the Grand Harbour. There is too much to describe between skyline and waterline, but suffice to say the bastions and the old limestone buildings, both urban and maritime were stunningly beautiful in the hot sun. The only thing to rival that view is the same view at night with the lights of Valletta bathing it all in a warm golden glow. Indeed all over Malta the lights are a comforting presence right through the night, not just for the revellers of Paceville and Bugibba, but for insomniacs too! The commentary on the Captain Morgan boat was very good, but it was a big boat and did not get into the smaller creeks as did another tour we did the following week in a  luzzu (a maltese traditional boat). We got very close in then to the dry docks and the commentary was more detailed, both historical and contemporary. However, getting off the luzzu proved quite hazardous as the gangplank bounced up and down in the choppy water and swung side to side in the wind which had got up during our journey, just as my 81 year old mother was disembarking. She was not the only passenger who needed help from the crew that day.

It is the beginning of August and the Porters have been bitten by the Maltese summer bug – swimming in the sea.

Snorkelling gear in hand, Lawrence and Jax head off to Anchor Bay and the concrete pier protecting the waters around Popeye Village. Two handy ladders down into the crystal clear water made getting in very easy, and gave me – who until now has not been confident swimming out of my depth – a sense of security by swimming between them.  There were many velvety black small fish and several resembling the little neon tetras I used to keep in an aquarium. Lawrence of course took off into the blue yonder splashing his way as he got used to his flippers, or as the cogniscenti call them, “fins”. As my confidence increased, I moved away from the ladders and revelled in the buoyancy given by the deep water. The salt water’s extra buoyancy soon had me floating happily, and determined to get my own snorkel mask – another psychological hurdle soon to be overcome.

Lawrence getting to grips with his equipment!

Well and truly bug-bitten, we began to explore for good swimming places. Every coast and rock shelf has got many ladders leading directly into the deep water, and everywhere you look there are groups of people having conversations and generally socialising while treading water, well out of their depth. Many of them are children whose behaviour in the water resembles that of seals.

The most beautiful place we found to swim was  Oval Inlet on the Delimara peninsula.

The Oval Inlet

It is not advertised and is not much frequented by foreigners. Access is by a long set of rough steps and then a trek across flat limestone shelves which in some places are so dramatically undercut that holes the size of dinner plates have been worn through the lip. They shelve gently to the waters edge where they plunge down 20 feet in a weed/anemone covered cliff to the sea floor. The ladder, unhelpfully, sloped back under the cliff making Mrs P’s entry to the water rather less than elegant. Once in though, it was marvellous. I borrowed L’s mask and was amazed more by the plant life on the rocks than by the fish which were many, but not so colourful as some I have seen. Many dark holes, though made me wonder if eels lurked  there and I had no desire to put my feet down. Sea urchins abound in these waters and I did not relish a prang either. In the cup of the oval the sea bed was of golden sand and the water was a clear, sparkling aquamarine. Reluctantly we left to go in search of lunch – should have brought a picnic, but had probably had enough sun.

Another unexpected bonus was Paradise Bay – very different from the “wild swimming” scenario above. Also accessed by a long stair of concrete, manicured, banistered steps, it nestles in a narrow inlet bordered by lovely fine golden sand. The beach franchise have made the most of the limited space. There are four tiers of terracing each with sunbeds and umbrellas tightly packed in. The middle two tiers are concrete, so not too much sand in the towels. A restaurant and bar served great fish, the usual burgers, lovely salads and gloriously cold beer.

Paradise Bay on a quiet Monday morning

The best bit here though is the sit-on kayak rental. They are decent boats and feathered paddles imported from Australia and we spent a wonderful hour wending our way around and through the rocks. They have an observation perspex panel in the footwell so we could see the fish and flora we passed over. It was marvellous to be back in a boat again, but the sun was extremely hot (32degs) and discretion won out and we only spent an hour. It did resolve us to buy our own kayaks here though. Lunch was a bit distracting trying to keep the flies away. They become a bit of a pest this time of year and I have spent a fortune on gadgets, plug-ins and sprays, some more effective than others. Best to spray up before going out around now, and eat inside where they are not so ubiquitous.

After these wonderful excursions life headed in another direction. My mother came to stay for a week and despite the heat, managed very well. Not having swum for 16 years, she was keen to relearn in our pool. This she did admirably with the initial help of a bright yellow foam” noodle”, and was swimming unaided by the time she left. Not bad for 81, is it?

The Swimming Lesson

The tour guiding was repeated the next week when our friends John and Joyce arrived for a week.Fortunately it involved introducing them to lots of nice restaurants. Very hot. Thank goodness for air conditioning.

We have our first outing to the Bridge Club later this week. It all sounds a bit daunting but we have played with some friends who belong and they have encouraged us with the words “Do not be intimidated”. Scary! I am sure we will have a great time once the nervousness has dissipated. I will reveal how we got on in the next instalment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Week 17 in Malta

Another week of exploration and reacquaintance with a favourite of our visit of 5 years ago.  Our trip to San Anton Gardens in Attard began very early. It opens at 7.00am so that the Maltese can take their early morning exercise and working people can use it as a shortcut to various destinations.

The gardens are part of the landscaped gardens belonging to the San Anton Palace. They are substantial, walled with weathered limestone covered in ivy and quite beautiful in the cool of the morning before the tourist horde arrive!

Trained tree arches in San Anton Gardens

The Palace was the country residence of the Grand Masters of the Order of the Knights of St John since the early 17th century. Over 600 guests could be entertained at one time and the ostentatious grandueur of the lifestyle adopted by many grand masters after the Great Siege brought severe reprimand from the Inquisition priests. Centuries later, it was used as the British Governor’s residence, and since 1974 it has been occupied by the Maltese President.

Palace Terrace with Stone Armchairs

There is a surprising variety of plants and trees – some of them more than 300 years old – laid out in classical lines with much elegant statuary and many pools and ponds which are inhabited by a variety of ducks, fish and terrapins. The terraces are stunning, and one archway is flanked by two stone armchairs which struck us as a curiosity, though doubtless they have some historical significance.

One of the Ancients

Apparently there used to be a camel in the menagerie there, but he has long gone. One mother duck had a gaggle of ducklings (12 in all) following her and one little fluffy black and yellow one decided to adopt me. I felt quite traitorous moving on! The peacocks soon distracted me however. I spent about 10 minutes trying to find them as I heard their strident calls long before they came into view.

An unexpected extra was the folklore exhibition held in one of the old outbuildings. We were invited in by the ubiquitous guide, and we entered out of politeness, but it was an astonishingly interesting exhibition. It was a rendition of all aspects of traditional maltese life eg working the saltpans, cutting the limestone, traditional fishing methods, spinning etc. It was entirely composed of mechanical figures complete with moving parts, none of which was more than 12 inches high. Their faces were modelled in clay to minute detail and the clothes had been painstakingly researched to get the cloth and its colour design right. The tools were equally well represented and the whole exhibition left us feeling nothing but admiration for its designers. They were a family team, with grandfather modelling the clay faces, our “guide” his son researched the fabrics and two other brothers helped to construct the elaborate figures. If there were eg five moving elements, there were five corresponding motors hidden under the display platform, the whole driven by mains power. Fascinating and obviously a labour of love.

From there we left the gardens and crossed the street to the associated cafe where we discovered old-fashioned bread pudding, great coffee and a large pond. This was home to two blacknecked swans and was originally the swimming pool of the presidential palace decades ago. In fact an old friend is thought to have swum in that pool! Beside the pond was an elaborately parterred herb garden and a rose garden, immaculately kept.

Royal Jax with Guards

Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, Lawrence insisted I had my photo taken in the company of the presidential guards – see photo above! On to the childrens zoo. Did you know that the ostrich has the biggest eye of any land animal? So it was claimed on the information sheet. Close up it certainly was enormous! I got a bit too close and it dabbed at me through the cage wire. Thankfully the wire was double-gussetted, so I was quite safe from that powerful beak!

Restored with the strong coffee, we departed the gardens determined to revisit them again, but definitely early as by the time we left, hordes of tourists with guides and their umbrellas were invading. We beat a hasty retreat!

San Anton Palace from the Gardens

As you can tell it is one of our favourite places, and we will return frequently, with and without our guests!

 

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Week 16 in Malta

Monday dawned after what would have been a very frustrating car-less time, had it not been for the most exciting  Tour de France in years. Both Saturday and Sunday were cliffhanging finishes, and so took our minds off  where we could not go! So, off to the garage where we were given a manual Renault Modus, the only courtesy car available. Not good for Mrs P with her poorly leg, and not good for Mr P who had to drive her everywhere. Not quite Miss Daisy, but not far off!

Orange Renault Modus

Still, the Renault had the last laugh as its bouncy suspension dealt with the rougher tracks we have a penchant for turning down far better than the Mercedes ever did. We are even considering changing for that reason, though doubtless inertia will squash that plan.

Mobile once more we headed next day to JB Stores, a veritable Tardis, in search of a sewing basket for me and some swimming shorts for Lawrence. Those of you who know me well understand that I am spatially challenged and can get lost on the easiest of routes. Navigating this store was a monster task for me. Each department seemed to be in a different building connected to its fellows by hidden archways and narrow tunnel-like corridors. In its favour, you can get almost anything in the household line you want there, provided you know where to look. I resorted to asking a kindly looking assistant who said “Behind you!” Given the muddle I had been in, the pantomime reference was quite appropriate, but I dutifully looked behind me and there in very large letters was the magical word HABERDASHERY. Smiling sheepishly I went down the three steps that seemed to lead into a wall, but turned at the last minute into a huge, cavernous room stocked floor to ceiling with buttons, thread, curtain fixtures, tiebacks, fans, needles, pattern books, embroidery kit and an apparently infinite amount of anything that might be remotely described as haberdashery – including my sewing basket. Mission accomplished.

The temperature soared at this point to a humid 42degrees, so the next couple of days were spent at the poolside and were broken only by an exploratory trip to the north of the island to Ramla Bay, where there are two hotels overlooking a rocky coastline and great views over to Gozo. Needless to say the quality of the hostelry had to be sampled. Both hotels are nice, one doing a very reasonable three course buffet lunch, the other one having superior facilities, but they are a long way from anywhere else in Malta. They make good sun, sand and sea retreats.

Ramla Bay Hotel

On Friday night the residents of Verdala Mansions held a poolside barbecue. This was a delightful event and gave us a chance to meet more of our neighbours and get to know them a little better. I learned a lot about the restoration of 13/14th century buildings from one guest and something of the political situation in Malta from another. We retired much later than expected having had a wonderful, sociable time.

The Pool at Verdala Mansions

Saturday was the highlight of the week. The final week of the Malta Arts Festival is celebrated by a concert in the Mediterranean Conference Centre, which is in the old Knights of St John Hospital. This fabulous old building was the very first “Nightingale Ward” accommodating  300+ patients at any one time. This order of knights were known as the Knights Hospitaller, and they treated both sick knights and common people. Food was scarce everywhere except on the tables of the grandees and in this hospital. Anyone, regardless of station had meat, eggs and fresh vegetables daily, as the physicians believed that only by ingesting good food could the body repair itself. Here is an interesting excerpt from one of my books on the subject.

Staircase at Knight's Hospital

The Sacra Infermeria (1575-1798) was opened in 1575 and consisted of two halls for the treatment of patients, each hall running for 505 ft in length. At the Sacra Infermeria there were employed ospedaliere and sotto ospedaliera whose work consisted of caring for orphaned babies who were left at the Infermeria. The Dalie della casa or the wet nurse and the Dalie di fuori or nutrici forasterie (foster mothers) provided supervision. Members of the same family usually employed the ospedaliera. An experienced older lady, called the donna per la tigna was engaged with the specific duty of medicating sufferers from ringworm. The Capital Ordinance, published by the order of St. John on the 1st of June 1631 included a section, which dealt with the running of the Sacra Infermeria. Article 24 spoke about the obligation each Knight had to serve each patient personally. To avoid confusion, Knights were not to attend the Infermeria all at the same time. It was decided that each langue or nationality was to work for a week with patients in the morning and evening. No less than seven Knights, servants or novices had to attend at a time. Those who were found guilty of having absented themselves from work were punished by septaine, this punishment consisted of an enforced fasting of seven days duration with an allowance of bread and water on the fourth and sixth day only. Moreover, the offender was caned on the shoulders.

Knight's Hospital

The hospital is an architectural masterpiece with sweeping limestone staircases, vaulted stone ceilings and has been richly restored to grandeur to be one of the premier conference centres of the Mediterranean. It also houses the concert hall in which we watched the closing concert of this year’s Festival, which is where this particular discussion began. The lights and the sound system have all been constructed to be in keeping with the old stone, often being recessed into a false block in the ceiling. The picture below shows this much more clearly.

Concert Hall at Knight's Hospital

Back to the concert! The pieces to be performed were Ravel’s “Bolero” and Carmina Burana by Karl Orff. The conductor was an old choirmaster of mine, Wayne Marshall. Every Christmas for 10 years he trained up a local choir in Bramshaw, Hampshire to do a Christmas concert at which he treated us to his virtuosity at the organ. What a delight to see him perform here in Malta where he spends a lot of his time, when not travelling the world conducting. Wayne has a unique/oblique approach to many well established musical pieces and I was not disappointed when the beautiful, but often repetitive Bolero (of Torvill and Dean fame) was treated to a Wayne Marshall interpretation. As each of the individual instruments began their part, the soloists stood, and sat down when finished, to be replaced by another standing soloist and so on. The instruments then played in various combinations against the steady drumbeat that threads constantly through the piece, including fiery involvement of the cymbals, tynpani and other percussion. At the final crescendo passage, all the musicians, violins included, stood and did a “Big Band” version of the melody. It was stupendous! The silence when it finished lasted about two seconds and the full house erupted to give a standing ovation for ten minutes.

Now you might think that Wayne would have trouble following that, but after a wonderful performance of Carmina Burana, for his encore, he got the audience to sing along – la la – to O Fortuna. It is great to know he has not allowed his fame to disengage him from his audience, nor has it damped his mischievous side. It was fifteen minutes before the applause ended and anyone moved to leave the hall. A justified accolade.

Wayne "Conducting" the Audience

I am pleased to say that I have made contact with Wayne again and hope to attend many more of his performances here. Can’t wait!

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Week 15 in Malta

The World's Premier Annual Sporting Event

Sunday was a quiet day, indulging ourselves in the annual excellent coverage by International Eurosport of the Tour de France. For those of you who do not follow this wonderful race, there is the secondary attraction of superb aerial photography of some of the most spectacular regions of France – coastal, flat rural lands, and the spectacular mountainous regions of the Pyrennees and the Alps, with their ski resorts. Accompanying this the race commentary is interspersed with nuggets of information about the various chateaux, moulins, churches and other notable architectural features. The commentators all have intimate knowledge of the terrain, having lived and cycled there for much of their careers. One interesting feature was the current Winter Olympics bobsleigh track. It was much longer than I expected, and engendered huge respect for those who compete in this breakneck sport. I will not go into the cycling details as those of you who are interested will know it already, and those who are not would be bored!

The following day we went to Mosta market for some shorts and sandals for Lawrence, and decided to go to Kennedy Grove for lunch. This area had been recommended to us by a friend, as a calm oasis in the midst of a very rumbustious tourist area. Of course, I had not realised it was a memorial garden to the John F Kennedy, and I was very pleasantly surprised to see, secreted among the scrubby woodland and discreetly hidden picnic tables, a formal water memorial garden complete with aquatic (remember how precious water is here) memorial surrounded by vertical railings topped by stars in an inspired representation of the Stars and Stripes of the American flag. The surrounding limestone structure was light and airy. It is a very simple, but beautiful memorial and the whole tranquil impression was reinforced by the darting colourful dragonflies flitting around our heads and over the water. The larger Kennedy Grove is a public park where local children can come and play safely in the concrete-floored geyser water fountains and their parents and other visitors can have a snack lunch in the clean, cool outdoor cafe.

John F Kennedy Memorial, Kennedy Grove

Tuesday proved more of a trial! Exploring as usual, we headed off to Pretty Bay in the south of the island, which, around 20 years ago, lived up to its name with a golden, sandy beach and shelving rocks just made for picnicking and easing gently into the sea. Deeper rock pools are ideal for fishermen. The came the Freeport, directly opposite the beach with its huge tankers, cranes, and containers.Needless to say it lost its tourist popularity. Not so with the pragmatic Maltese. The beach is still lovely, the water is still clear, the rocks are still warm and it was good to see the picnics, impromptu dining tables, and families swimming still very much in evidence. It seems to us that most folk arrive around six, stay till around half past seven and then leave. It’s a good time of the day, cool with not too many mozzies!

Cold War Monument

Marsaxlokk Bay was the location for the historical “seasick summit” where, on board ship in very unpleasant weather conditions, George Bush Snr. and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the agreement ending the Cold War in December 1989. There is a monument commemorating this event on the promenade near Pretty Bay.

We had two options for our journey home. We could either flank the airport (quieter) or go back through urban Marsa (shorter). Thankfully we chose the airport route. Driving along, filled with wellbeing, we were rudely brought back to a different reality when our engine cut out. No hope of a restart. We just coasted to a permanent stop. Luckily just the previous day we had replaced the emergency triangle and fluorescent jackets that had been stolen in transit in Italy. So, taking his life in his hands, Lawrence placed the little red triangle at a safe distance from the car, switched on the flashers and waited for the Maltese equivalent of the AA provided by our insurers.

Maltese drivers take no prisoners. The road was narrow. We were tooted at for causing an irritating obstruction. The triangle was very necessary as without it our car would have been hit from behind! At one point, we were overtaken with another car coming the opposite way. We envisaged bodywork being necessary as well as mechanical! Feeling very vulnerable, we moved down the road into a side road, perched on a wall and settled in to read our kindles until the rescuer arrived. Ten minutes later, our Sir Galahad pronounced our breakdown due to a faulty fuel pump, put us on a flat loader and transported us to his depot. The car is under warranty, thank goodness. For a couple of days before this, the gears (automatic) were slipping. Unfortunately the gearbox diagnostics cannot be done until the car is running, so we are now waiting for a new fuel pump to come from Germany, and after that we may find we need a new gearbox! Good old Mercedes will give us a courtesy car on Monday to tide us over in the meantime. Watch this space!

Our week improved the next evening when we attended a supper club in The Peak, a Chinese restaurant in Sliema. It was another opportunity to meet more people, and Lawrence was delighted to be able to practise his Maltese on one of the couples at our table, who were very appreciative of his efforts. He is doing really well. Normally I am the linguist, but it is such a difficult language, that I have decided to have lessons in the oral version only, which begin in October as part of the local adult education courses in Mosta. In the meantime I am picking up rules of pronunciation from him which will stand me in good stead. I am really impressed with how much he has progressed, and the old ladies he greets on his morning runs past their doorsteps are delighted. It is very easy to speak English only here, but the language is unique and like the French spoken in Quebec sets the Maltese Islands apart as an individual nation. They do have a football team in the Champions League, after all!

Evening in Sliema

We also met Barbara who runs a rubber bridge club in Malta, and we arranged to meet up next week for lunch and a few hands. We need to brush up our card-play, as we are very rusty, but are looking forward to it immensely.

So, the week ended very quietly, but as the temperatures have soared to 35 degrees plus, swimming, languishing by the pool, and watching the Tour was as much as we could manage anyway! Our evenings as always are enlivened by the summer fireworks which are usually going off somewhere in our field of view.

Till next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Week 14 in Malta

This week began with chaos on the buses. Arriva began its new system, but was effectively sabotaged by a large number of drivers (58 I think) of the old buses who just did not turn up for work, without telling the firm.  So, the routes had to be covered with the drivers they had, which resulted in a much less frequent service than published. The troubles did not end there. The state of the art computer signage to tell passengers which route a bus was servicing did not materialise and passengers at bus stops were forced to ask each bus that stopped where it was going to, all of which added to the delay and frustration of all. Another problem was that the bendy buses got stuck on some of the routes and one even had to do a three point turn, then reverse out of a congested shopping area. In all a total of 81 drivers did not turn up over the week, but Arriva imported as many British drivers and reverted to the “paper number in the windscreen” method of identification and the whole thing has smoothed out, except that the role of the bendy buses are being re-evaluated.

Off with the Old

One aspect of the new bus system is that some of the roads have had new tarmac laid down. We were greatly amused to see the rural road around Dingli Cliffs with fresh tarmac only on the left side, as the bus only goes one way round there! Such pragmatism!

On with the New

Things are settling down now, but the drivers who did not turn up for the week’s rotas have been sacked and the British drivers will stay until the Maltese recruitment and training is at full strength

This week is also noteworthy because we had our first swim in the sea – at Golden Bay, beside our favourite watering hole, the Radisson hotel – where else? Hitherto we had swum in the pool, but decided to do the Maltese thing and swim in the sea. Several hundred other people had the same idea. golden Bay is a beautiful sandy beach, and is the biggest in Malta, but by British standards is the size of a small Cornish cove. Somehow everyone has enough room to relax or play in the sun, partially because of the good nature of the people there.

Golden Bay in High Season

The lifeguard situation was interesting. The beach sports an elevated, platform-style lifeguard station, with the traditional high chairs for the guards to watch from. There is also a commercial franchise hiring kayaks, dinghies, banana boat rides , pedaloes etc. It appears that the lifeguard cannot rescue anyone associated with the franchise, they have to do it themselves. We watched a pedalo, clearly in trouble and being pushed towards the rocky shore of the adjacent bay, with one of those on board waving a shirt, frantically trying to get the attention of someone to help. The lifeguards did not spot them for quite some time and then had to run to the franchise staff, who took some time to get their rib into the water and go to the rescue. The problem seemed to be that they could not turn the pedalo against the tide/current, so it was not really a life-threatening event and all was well in the end.

Bureaucracy is still rearing its head and we registered for our bus cards on Tuesday. To register to stay in Malta more than 3 months you need a temporary health document. So on Wednesday, off to the office in Valletta which we had been told opened in the mornings on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 9am. We were very cheesed off to find that we were still standing there at 9.30 and no sign of life in the offices. A very nice Maltese lady (travel agent) stopped and asked if she could help us. We explained our situation and she started to laugh, telling us “but today is Thursday!”

It was very funny, but just a tad embarrassing. Since we have been here we do not look at our calendar nearly as often as we used to and life is so relaxing, we totally lost a day. We will not contemplate the other option – that we suffered from a simultaneous senior moment! We rectified the situation the following day with another trip into Valletta which was much more fruitful.

Saturday saw the highlight of our week. This was an open-air concert in The Granaries which is a public square in front of St. Publius Church in Floriana often used for large events such as concerts, festivals and other large gatherings.  Originally built by Grand Master Marino de Redin during 1657 – 1660 as an underground storage facility for grain, the square is characterised by a large number of stone flat stone caps for the underground grain silos. The silos were built under ground to protect the grain during wars and sieges.

The main artist and organiser was the Maltese tenor, Joseph Calleja who is one of the worlds foremost operatic tenors. He had his debut at the Met in New York as Rodolpho in La Boheme, and has gone from strength to strength since. He has been hailed as the new Pavarotti, not least because he, like the great man is committed to running a concert in his native city. I prefer the warmth of his voice to that of Jose Cura and Roberto Alagna. He totally immersed himself in the character of the arias he sang, which were not the usual popular suspects, but less often performed arias from Tosca, Le Cid, and Cavalleria Rusticana, among others, including Rossini’s tongue twister La Danza.

Lucio Dalla, Hayley Westenra and Joseph Calleja

There were two other artists on the bill that night. The first of these was Hayley Westenra, performing more popular pieces, many with a haunting quality that was reflected in the darkening sky with the moon rising and the stars coming out over the dramatic square with its old buildings and church, redolent with the history of equally dramatic times.

The third of the trio was Lucio Dalla, a diminutive man with an astonishingly large personality who jazzed his way – in Italian – through an entertaining selection of numbers including a protest song. The climax of his performance was a duet with Joseph Calleja of his (Dalla’s) own composition “Caruso”, a song dedicated to the famous Italian tenor, which is an established world wide hit. It brought the house down.

A series of duets between the singers followed and the final encore was Nessun Dorma with Dalla giving a creditable performance as a second tenor.

Apart from the great music and the wonderful venue, there was another unexpected aspect of this concert. The wife of a previous presiden had died a few days earlier. She had been a reforming figure in her own right with a strong sense of duty, and when Calleja dedicated one of his arias to her, the whole audience erupted into applause, many rising to stand in tribute. The applause went on for a very long time. It was yet another manifestation of the national solidarity and integrity of the Maltese people. Despite often bitter rivalry between the two main political parties all those hundreds present at the concert, irrespective of political affiliation, stood to honour “a good woman”. She was Maltese. That was enough.

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Week 13 in Malta

Having said goodbye to Martin and Carolyn on Monday, Tuesday began extremely early. If you want any bureaucratic business done, here unless you are first in line, it can practically take all day as we had learned with the car registration debacle. So, 6am start, dress smartly, and off to the government offices to get our Malta ID cards. Despite being there at the time it was due to open (7.30am), we were third in line.

Lawrence had printed off our application forms and we had filled them in prior to our interview with an extremely dour policewoman, who signed them to say she had clapped eyes on us and sent us to the photographer, who was if anything even more taciturn. Then we moved rooms again to be interviewed and to finalise the proceedings. Guess what – not even a glimmer of a smile! I suspect they have been told not to engage the punters. Lawrence had a clear run, but they wanted to see all my documents, including my very tatty (aged!) birth certificate and our marriage certificate. Clearly the women are the ones to watch!

After all that, we did not receive our ID cards, but were told to wait for a letter confirming our acceptance, then bring it back to the same office, together with our passports! Interestingly, we were asked  whether we wanted to vote for the British or Maltese MEPs.

That evening we went to an EPOKA (meaning a “period of time”) folk festival on the eve of L-Mnarja, a medieval midsummer holiday celebrating the harvest and agriculture in general. In modern times it is an opportunity for everyone to promenade along the Valletta waterfront either in costume or not, admiring the stalls showing off all the artistic and rural activities of the island.

The Turkey

A company of late 18th century soldiers had set up camp complete with swords, pig on a spit over a crackling fire, some camp followers and rifles that they loaded with real paper gunpowder cartridges they made in front of our eyes. Local farmers had brought gaily coloured wagons of their produce and livestock. The star of the show was a turkey with a blue face which spent the whole evening in amorous display, fanning out its enormous tail feathers trying to entice one particular hen. Such stamina!

There was a weaver making rugs in the traditional way and many stalls with wines, liqueurs, cakes and other edibles for sale. Some had come over from Gozo. My favourite was the nougat stall. There was the usual nutty nougat, but the traditional soft maltese nougat far exceeds this. Every imaginable flavour, not only in bars but formed into intricate cakes, hearts, flowers, or a combination of both,  all wrapped in bright metallic wrappers. These are traditionally associated with major events such as Easter, Christmas, birthdays and First Communion days.

At 9 o’clock, I was in harpy heaven. A group of musicians dressed in period costume included the harpist I tried to get to teach me, but she was unable to do so as she was an anaesthetist just finishing her final exams prior to going abroad in about three months. Pity. The costumes were all gold and red apart from hers. She was dressed in a powder blue period gown with a white lace veil, and resembled one of the madonnas in the many churches here. Sitting behind her harp, which to my surprise was a lever harp like mine – though larger – she really was a picture. We do play on the angelic image, don’t we?

The Folk Group, Gukulari

The music was a mixture of 17th century classical and Maltese folk songs and it was great to see someone who is a premier harpist in Malta doing what I do with my little folk band and using it as an accompaniment and rhythm instrument, albeit to a much higher standard. All Maltese we have met are incredibly proud of their heritage and not elitist about their music.

Stroking his Rod

One of the funnier items was an instrument like a flowerpot with a flexible rod sticking out of it, which the player stroked forcibly to produce a noise like Rolf Harris’s flexiboard! Strange!!

Valletta Waterfront

After the concert I was able to speak to Anne-Marie the harpist, and went home through the lovely streets, extremely happy and  determined to practice harder.

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Week 12 in Malta

This week began with a delay! Our friends, Martin and Carolyn from New Zealand, were due to arrive late morning but the plane from Heathrow was overbooked and they were transferred to a flight not arriving till 1.30 am on Tuesday. We felt sorry for them until we heard that they had been very well treated to a hotel, reimbursement, dinner and other treats.

Upper Barraka Gardens

So, the week with our friends began on Tuesday morning. Lawrence conducted them on the obligatory tour of fabulous Valletta travelling in on the bus. I had somehow damaged my achilles tendon and had to stay at home, as Valletta is a very hilly city. I was pleased they got the “Malta Bus” experience as on 3rd July – imminent now – they will all be taken off the road and replaced by new modern, air-conditioned, spacious, eco-buses. Very necessary, but sad nonetheless. The “tour” begins at the Upper Barraka Gardens looking out over  the bastions to Grand Harbour, thence to The Malta Experience, an audiovisual presentation cum orientation on the history of Malta stressing the Knights of St John period, which puts everything in context very well, then to the Co-Cathedral, Grand Masters Palace and across the harbour on the ferry to Sliema and the no 65 bus to Rabat and home.

Part of the View from Upper Barraka Gardens

We used Martin and Carolyn as an excuse to investigate yet another restaurant, this time “Essence” in the Radisson, which lived up to its reputation for excellent seafood. We asked the waitress about the various fish on the menu and were led to a glass case in which they were displayed whole! I really could have missed that bit out. She also introduced us to another Maltese red wine which is now on the Porter list of “house” wines.

On Wednesday, Martin was giving a dermatology talk to a group of the local doctors, so after a leisurely lie-in, he decided he really should look at his notes! He had made contact with a previous colleague of his, now a consultant here in Malta, and whose rooms turned out to be in the clinic we are registered with our GP. Small world indeed.

In the evening we introduced them to Mdina and our trattoria for supper and a lively discussion on so many subjects I lost count.

On Thursday we took them to the ferry to Gozo. They are keen cyclists and I thought one of the options they had was to hire bikes there, but the hills were too steep and narrow, the turns were too tight and Carolyn rebelled! For the same reason they did not hire a car although the native driving habits also contributed to that decision! At the last minute we decided to cross with them, not having been to Gozo for years. It is a relatively small island and buses and Shanks’s pony will get you pleasantly to most of the major attractions. Their hotel was situated close to many of them anyway. We parted company and made our way back to the ferry. You pay on the way back, not on the way going, unlike Wales which is the other way round.

That night we met up with another group of friends who had in fact come from Wales to see the Knights island, inspired by “Blood Rock”,  a novel I always recommend to anyone visiting. Back to Mdina with its stunning purple bougainvillea and again to the trattoria, whose menu I am steadily working my way through – all in the interests of future visitors of course.

Saturday saw the return of the wanderers from Gozo, who had the journey from hell! Their mobile had run out of juice and they were unable to contact us to pick them up as we had arranged, so many hot smelly bus rides later, they made their way to our apartment, where after a recharging of all batteries they spent the afternoon chilling out by the pool and just generally winding down.

No-one was in the mood for a heavy supper so I cooked a shrimp/coriander pesto pasta with salad and we went out on the town to the local festa (Feast of Corpus Christi) which was in full swing. The streets were heavily garlanded, flags flew from every balcony, the village brass band played in the square and we watched the procession of the saint carried on a podium on the shoulders of six men who staggered under the weight. The statue was then transferred to a tower with an elevating platform which was raised level with the floor of an elaborately decorated niche about 15 feet off the ground, where it stayed until the next day.

The interesting thing was that it was moved (by hugging!) easily by a single man, so a lot of the staggering was either for effect or due to other influences – unlikely, given the reverence these events are held in here. In fact, we discovered that many of the statues are made of papier mache and are feather light!

Festas are always an occasion accompanied by fireworks, and we decided to wait for them to erupt. So off for a coffee, then back to the square. The fireworks themselves were a bit disappointing, but the bangs were prodigious and great hilarity ensued when one of the Catherine Wheels escaped from its perch and chased several of the audience around the park. On a more serious note, several people are killed each year trying to make fireworks at home in Malta, despite it being illegal. But so ingrained is the tradition that the practice persists.

The following day, Martin and Carolyn were to go out on their friend’s boat at 11am, which I thought was very valiant as Carolyn always suffers from seasickness! However, there is no resting on a Porter tour and we were very keen that they should see the fish market at Marsaxlokk, which only occurs on a Sunday and commences at 7am. Troopers that they were, they agreed and were not disappointed. Carolyn got splashed by an ugly red fish while trying to work out what it was and a grouper was as scary as any shark! There were eels, huge octopus, fish of all sorts and sizes, whole squid, sea urchins, an unbelievable array of things marine!

We left in time to take them to meet their friend for the boat ride, Kwells in hand, and the day felt really quiet without them. They had a great time, and Carolyn made it through unscathed. The best bit apparently was the “ice-cream boat” that toured the anchorage dishing out cooling sustenance. Imagine!

No-one wanted to do very much that night so I inflicted my rabbit stew on them and they did a bit of packing, preparatory to their afternoon flight the next day.

Sunday dawned sunny – no surprise there – and true to Porter tour rules we decided to see the catacombs here in Rabat before lunch. There are two sets in Rabat, but we went to those of St Agatha. She was a 16year old Christian girl who was martyred around AD 250 when she fended off the attentions of a Roman governor who proposed marriage, because she said she would not marry a pagan. The catacombs are accessed by a crypt-like Church of St Agatha where there are many original brightly coloured original frescoes around a shrine to the saint.

St Agathas altar

These frescoes were created between the 12th and 15th centuries by devotees. The original church was a cave hewn from rock which was first embellished in the 4th and 5th centuries. The recent restoration in the 1980s was funded by the Lions club of Sliema.

The catacombs are very much older, and date to the time of St Agatha herself. the Christians did not believe in cremation and as there was very little soil cover, they hewed the labyrinth of tombs out of the underlying rock. These underground cemeteries were long narrow corridors with tombs on each side. There were various types of grave, but always for more than one person. 500 graves in all with remains of 1700 skeletons were found here. The labyrinth contains 4 kilometres of corridor.

The “window” graves were chiselled out through a small square aperture and a vertical slab was replaced in the opening after the interment was completed.

Window Grave

There were other kinds of graves too. Family graves had two layers each holding two bodies, and there were tiny alcoves for infants and babies. The life expectancy of the diggers who worked the stone was 25 yrs due to the dust and infection risks of their jobs. They were very well paid but had no light and were in effect stone miners.

Some of the wealthier families decorated large tombs with fresco-style paintings. Here is an example with the scallop representing the heavens, the cross, doves of peace and flowers representing eternal life. It is stunning in its location, a thing of antiquity and beauty in an otherwise grim setting.

Catacomb Fresco

Our guide who was one of the archaeologists involved in the restoration of the tombs told us that we then had 2 minutes to get out or the lights would go out. We had been fortunate to see the fresco as larger groups could not get there in time and the lighting was restricted to optimise conservation of the painting. Needless to say, we all moved very quickly!

We had a lovely lunch at Ciappetti in Mdina and then Carolyn and Martin went off to the airport leaving us to get ready for a drinks do at a neighbour’s later on that evening.

We had a great time there meeting many interesting people but the coincidence was that one of the guests told us how his father – a german and italian speaker – had been incarcerated as a collaborator in St Agatha’s tombs for 2 years with prisoners of war, despite protesting his innocence all that time. Sometimes he was not allowed out into the open air for days on end. After the two years he was believed, released and told that he was now a member of the British Army and he spent the rest of the war years as an interpreter for the British Forces in Malta. According to his son, he bore no grudge!

So, that brings us to the end of the week. More soon.

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Week 11 in Malta

This week began with a domestic disaster. Newly returned from our trip to the UK, and expecting our guests Pauline and Stephen for drinks and thence to Mdina’s De Mondian restaurant for dinner, we were anticipating a quiet day to settle ourselves before getting back into the swing of things here. Not to be!

I spotted a small puddle of water on the floor in front of the cupboard housing the sink’s water heater. I thought I had spilled some the night before and opened the cupboard to get a cloth. I was greeted with a soggy confection of dishwasher tablets, salt, washing powder, all of which – thankfully – had soaked up most of the flood that had leaked from the water heater and was continuing to do so slowly but steadily, hence the spillage on the floor. Once the frothy mess was removed, the leak became greater and it was clear that we should turn off the water at the feeder pipe to the heater. Finding it was not straightforward but eventually we spotted it. Lawrence, under my instruction and against his better judgement, turned the appropriate tap – and the thing (rotten through) broke off in his hand. It was indeed the mains feeder tap to the heater and Mr and Mrs Bean had arrived in Malta.

I was wearing a very thin silk sundress and the full mains water pressure jetted over me, with Lawrence all the while struggling to replace the bit that had come apart. Four inches of water on the kitchen floor in as many seconds later, we realised that more drastic action was needed and the mains stopcock three floors down would have to be turned off. I took over as the person with the finger in the dyke and waited in great agitation for the water to stop. It did not! I found it increasingly difficult to block the flow and in the end the water was spraying all around my thumb which was heavily compressed by my other hand.

At this point hubby appeared at the door and said “That should stop it it”, only to drop his jaw at the sight of his wife doing a very bad impression of Bo Derek  full length on the kitchen floor, head and arms in a cupboard which resembled nothing so much as an open sluice gate.The only true resemblance to Bo was that my dress was by this time see through! Not amused.

So, Mr Bean leaves Mrs Bean and has another go. Up he comes to confess that he had turned off next door neighbour’s water by mistake! At this point the jet reduced to a trickle and we called our janitor/handyman, who said he would be right up. We just stood dismayed at the chaos of towels, dishcloths etc I had used to mop it up – with limited success. Our first concern was that the apartment below might have repercussions, but then a more immediate problem emerged for me with the arrival at the door of Mario. My dress was no longer decent, so I fled to change leaving poor Lawrence to explain our cack-handedness and wield the mop!

Mario saved the day by replacing the valve we had broken and isolating the heater, which had also been connected to the diswasher. Those of you who follow our newsletter will remember that it was he who fixed our kitchen light after the “explosion”.  He is a treasure. We called a plumber to fix it the next day.

So, our “moment of calm” was anything but and we were very ready to join our guests later that day for a stiff drink before dinner. Stephen could not understand how the Maltese are so fond of what he called “daylight fireworks” which we were treated to during our drinks on the balcony. These are not the colourful type seen traditionally at night, but are often in the shape of a halo composed of several stars. They are known as “petards” which comes from the French “peter”. “to break wind”. The noise when it eventually reaches us is like a gattling gun!  Incidentally, one of the villages, Mqabba has just broken the world record for the biggest ever Catherine Wheel with a diameter of 32metres. The record had been held for the last 12 years by an English firework factory. Feeling all the better for an imbibement of Moet, we were ready for our supper.

The restaurant terrace is part of the bastions of Mdina and dining outdoors was a pleasure, despite the wind. The food was its usual wonderful standard, and the fireworks became more colourful, complex and noisy as the evening wore on. We decided the “show” had lasted for at least four hours.

I think Stephen and Pauline were surprised at how settled we are despite our short time here, but as I keep saying, it really does feel like home. It was lovely to catch up on all their news, and, two nights later, they introduced us to yet another restaurant, the “Barraccuda” in St Julians. This specialises in fish, and I had a most unusual dish of langoustines coated in crispy cumin which was fabulous. We had a marvellous table, cantilevered out over the water which was so clear you could see every colour of the rocks and fish below.  All too soon it was time to say goodbye, but I have a feeling it will not be too long before we see you here again, guys. We hope so.

So, sanity restored!

The week got even better when we went on our first serious historical outing to the temples of Mnajdra and Haġar Qim. This was what I had been looking forward to and I was not disappointed. Since I have been a child I have been fascinated by paleontology and truly ancient monuments. Stonehenge and the Pyramids are famously thought to be the earliest. Imagine my surprise when a local archaeologist told us that  Malta has the oldest known temples in the world and they predate the others by over 1000years. Historical heaven.

Haġar Qim Temple

Like so many of the features – old and new – in Malta which are often hidden away in most unexpected places, these were approached by a poor roadway (did have a bus stop though!) which seemed to lead us to the back of beyond. We then found an excellent car park and the museum associated with the monuments, which housed a fascinating collection of interactive models, reproductions of the artifacts found and an excellent walk through poster-presentation of the discovery, excavation and conservation of the temples. There was a minimally informative, but very evocative audiovisual presentation suggesting how primitive man might have come here to live and how the temples might have been raised.

Under the "Umbrella"

By this time I was itching to get to the monuments themselves. We exited a door and there it was! My jaw dropped. I had not expected such a stunning sight. It was not just the temples themselves which are about 600mtrs apart, but also the surreal effect of the “umbrella” structures over them. This was a physical manifestation of how the science of today is being used to protect the science of the ancients.

There is good documented evidence that an established farming community lived in Malta by 5000 BC – 7000years ago! The earliest temples are thought to date from around 3760BC and possibly span two millenia. They are still finding new structures. I will not go into the recent story of the Hypogeum where remains of 7000 bodies  were found, but save that for a later time when I have seen it myself.

Spiral Detail from Haġar Qim

The temples were built using stone available in the vicinity. There are two types of limestone, laid down from sediment –  the softer globigerina limestone from simple sediment which was easier to shape and the very hard coralline limestone, derived from coral organisms, which could be broken up, but not shaped. The builders used a combination of both, depending on what was to hand, though the facades and outer walls always had beautifully dressed slabs

At the time they were erected, there were no other freestanding megalithic structures being built, and there is no clue as to how or why those early builders/architects generated the consistent pattern seen in the temples. Apart from Stonehenge, a millenium later, the Malta temples are the only monolithic structures where the stone was truly dressed. Others builders later split the stone, but used it  au naturel.

Most of the temples have a common pattern. They have a flat area in front which acts as a forecourt, then comes the facade which faces south or southeast and which is made up of huge flat stone slabs set on end to form a flat wall, bounded by taller stones at each end, and capped with smaller slabs. The side walls were of similar slabs without the smaller capping layers. In the middle of the facade wall is a trilithon entrance like those seen in Stonehenge, leading into the temple proper via a slab lined and floored corridor. The passage opens out into an inner courtyard, which was roofed over. The roofing was of stone using the method of corbelling, whereby successive layers of stone projected beyond the one below over the space to be roofed until it was completed, beehive-like in appearance from the outside.

This courtyard led to oval or D-shaped chambers , either through trilithon doorways or through “porthole” doorways – large rectangular openings cut from a single wall slab. These chambers often did not touch the perimeter wall and debris was used to fill in the gaps between the two. No windows! The rubble used for this lowly purpose has yielded some of the most significant dating artifacts and materials e.g.pot sherds and bits of implements. The temples vary usually only in the number of the chambers or “apses” leading off the central inner courtyard. Again the “portholes” or small trilithon doorways – always big enough to allow passage –  were the only means of communication between the inner chambers which often led off one another in the larger temples. The smallest temples have two chambers, the largest in excess of six. Usually the altar, again in trilithon style, was right at the back of the innermost apse.

Notable features were stone brackets perhaps designed to hold hangings on poles,
holes that seem to be designed to hold a rotating door post and detailed carving on the altars and many uprights. The sheer size of some of the blocks that had to be moved were mind-blowing. One of the slabs we saw was over 7 metres long and over 5 metres high. One of our modern cranes might struggle with such a load. The manpower necessary to move and erect that single slab is unimaginable, especially given the primitive methods available.
Other elements such as the statues of the Maltese Venus, the typical “fat ladies” with normal upper bodies but gigantic belly and thighs, are represented in the museum by copies, but the originals are now housed in the Archaeology museum in Valletta. You will have to go and find out more for yourselves! The list is prodigious.

There are several ways that Malta integrates the modern with the ancient. The most obvious is the special covering I mentioned earlier designed to protect these world heritage sites from the vagaries of the salt, wind, rain and spray that have resulted in drastic deterioration since their excavation. Meteorological data is collected and so far as is possible the environment is controlled for temperature and humidity. There is something quite special about the new sheltering the old. (I saw something similar in the hidden concrete casing sheltering the Egyptian temple of Abu Simbel.) Also one of the altars in the Mnajdra complex was chosen as the design on Maltese euro coins in 2008.

A final thought on these magnificent structures. While it is automatically assumed that they were for religious purposes because of their grandueur, the many chambers, the fact that they are mostly built several in a cluster, make me wonder if they did not also function as “villages” where the populace lived and came together.  One of the temples near Zabbar has got a shallow limestone trough 2.66 metres long, built into the temple in front of one of the apses. It has seven deep depressions separated by worn vertical flanges, and a grinding stone was found nearby. The consensus is that it was for the (?) women of several families to grind their corn. So – just a thought.

There is so much more to see both from this period and earlier. Modern dating methods can trace farming methods back to 5000BC and it is well documented that men were sailing the mediterranean in 8000BC and that trade, in particular of obsidian was prevalent. There are the caves, the hypogea and many other sites to keep me busy.

Bring it on!

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Weeks 7-10 in Malta

The reason for this long break in communications was a trip to the UK, and preparing for the trip was boring with one exception. Week seven saw a long awaited celebratory dinner, just the two of us, at De Mondion.

This restaurant sits atop the Xara Palace hotel, a 17th century palazzo and dining on its outdoor terrace gives a spectacular view over the island to the Mediterranean beyond. This would be more impressive to diners who, unlike us, did not have the same view from their balcony at home! Nonetheless, it was very fine, and the food justified the reputation of the chef, who is deemed the best in Malta. they serve French haute cuisine, using as many local ingredients as possible.

The De Mondian, Xara Palace, Mdina

Sadly we were not able to dine outdoors as there was a gale blowing, but the intimate, very comfortable dining room was an excellent substitute.

After a sumptuous meal, I was gently sipping my recuperative green tea while Lawrence dealt with the bill. I glanced up to see a panic stricken husband. “Did you bring any money” he said. “No” I replied, thinking he needed some change for the tip. But no! It was much worse than that. He had brought his “muggers wallet” by accident where the most recent card was almost 5 years out of date. Whoops!!

Lawrence called Edgar our local taxi driver on my mobile, ran down into the car which fortunately was waiting at the door, and scurried home (fortunately close by) to retrieve the correct wallet. I in the meantime contrived to sip my tea very slowly and fended off the waiter twice, assuring him that my husband would be back very soon. I could see that the poor man was wondering if Lawrence had an adverse reaction to something he had eaten.

Some time later, a very flustered husband appeared, and told a tale that would have done Mr Bean proud. On arriving at the apartment building, he burst through the outer door, dashed to the lift, ran into the apartment, all the way to the back where he picked up the correct wallet, and dashed back out again – only to be passed by a strange dog which rushed past him into the apartment! I wish I could have seen the double-take he must have done! Talk about bad timing. Fortunately the dog was friendly, and did not snarl as he shooed it out of the flat. It then proceeded to accompany him into the lift and downstairs. He knew it must belong to one of the other residents so did not want to let it go outside, but he had extreme difficulty getting past it for several minutes. All this time Edgar was revving the engine ready for a quick getaway, but all he could see through the glass door was Lawrence scurrying about bent over, but not the dog. He must have thought he was mad!

Anyway, eventually he returned, we confessed to the waiter, who by this time thought I had been abandoned, and paid the bill. I tittered all night.

So then home to Blighty, where we played with the Drakes Broughton folk band in the Pershore Carnival, and in one of their practice sessions. It was great to catch up with them again, as we used to play every Monday night. My mother’s birthday was another notable event as was my eye check-up. No more operations, but 6 months of drops to correct persistent fluid build up in my macula. Could have been much worse.

St Brides, Fleet Street

Just before coming back, we had a fabulous day with our friends the Hodgsons who had invited us to the traditional Richard Johnson Memorial Service in St Brides Church, Fleet Street, followed by a banquet in Stationers Hall. St Brides is a Christopher Wren church with it’s tall “wedding cake” spire being, of his creations, second in height only to St Paul’s Cathedral. The music was wonderful with a new composition by a young composer setting a traditional psalm to soaring atonal, often discordant, but quite stunning music. The sermon theme was “Life is a bubble” as it has been since its inception centuries ago. As is traditional, the theme “I’m forever blowing bubbles” was also sung by a fine soprano. Football sprang to mind at that point!

The Nave, St Brides

 

Lunch was equally fascinating, as apart from the delicious, beautifully presented food, the hall itself was a historical treasure with the Livery flags and the gorgeous panelling. The piece de resistance was an original James the First Bible. Such ancient, beautiful calligraphy and binding was quite moving. So many thanks to Roy and Joan for a great day.

Stationers Hall

After that it was time to sort out what we were taking back to Malta. We had to buy two cases, as we had come back carry-on only and I wanted to take my treasured Vorwerk hoover back, together with a load of linen, two duvets and my cutlery! So we ended up with 3 cases and two pieces of hand baggage. These items are seriously expensive over here and Ryanair’s luggage charges quite modest, so it was worthwhile.

Back home to the apartment and straight to the balcony where there was an enormous firework display as part of a local festa weekend which lasted till midnight. It had been good to see everyone, but this is feeling like home now, and we were both glad to be back. Our first visitors would arrive the next day, so off to bed to recharge the batteries!

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Getting to Grips with the Maltese Language

In which the Satnav swears at Jaqui and I curse David Brown.

After only a short time in Malta we have decided to abandon this year’s language project (Spanish) in favour of learning Maltese. It’s not at all necessary to speak the local language in Malta since English is one of the two official languages and almost everyone on the island speaks it well. However Maltese is the language of choice in everyday use, particularly in areas like Rabat where we are living, and it would be nice to understand more of what is going on around us.

Maltese is an interesting language having its roots in Arabic but with a large component of Romance languages, particularly Italian.

We are hoping to join a formal class in the Autumn. Language is one of the few many skills at which Jaqui clearly outshines me. For example as a schoolgirl she won the French Consul’s prize for the best spoken French in Northern Ireland. She also speaks reasonable German and a little Spanish. In a social situation where another language is being spoken I normally shut up and leave the talking to Jax. (Actually, come to think of it…)  I therefore thought I would get a head start by beginning now rather than waiting for the course.

The modern, and most effective, approach to learning a new language is to start speaking it straight away and allow vocabulary, spelling and grammar to catch up later. Needless to say, me being Lawrence, I decided to do exactly the opposite, to learn to read Maltese before attempting to speak it.

I was inspired to try this approach by David Brown, a great friend from university days. Back then, when we were undergraduates, he described to me how a certain very bright linguist had decided to learn twelve languages simultaneously. He did this by acquiring one classic novel in each of the languages, accompanied by a dictionary and a book of grammar. He spent an hour a day on each novel, using the dictionary to work out each sentence at a time. It was slow work at first, looking up every individual word, but sped up as time went on and the vocabulary started to build up. Before he had reached the end of the first chapter of each novel he had a good working knowledge of the language.

Not being a brilliant linguist, I decided to simplify the process by opting for a children’s book rather than a classic novel. I chose a translation of Oliver Twist which is nicely illustrated and seems to be aimed at the under tens. Armed with a good Maltese-English dictionary I sat down and began to read. It didn’t go well.

The first word in the book wasn’t to be found in the dictionary!  (I was soon to learn that less than 50% of the words could be found in the dictionary – at least not in their alphabetical order.) The first sentence in the book begins Fl-ewwel… Ewwel is very straightforward, it means “first” but what on earth is Fl-? There is nothing in the dictionary between fjus (“fuse”) and flaġell (“whip”). Later (much later) I was to discover that fl is a contraction of fi meaning “in” ad l- the definite article. But l- is itself a contraction of il- which drops the initial when it precedes (or indeed when it follows) a vowel. In the meantime I skipped over Fl- thinking “I’ll come back to that later”.

A few words later in that same first sentence I came across mill-bliet. Guess what? no mill- and no bliet in the dictionary! A Maltese friend was kind enough to translate bliet for me. It means “cities” and is the plural of belt or “city”. Bliet does not appear in the dictionary in its own right but is listed along with the root noun belt. Since the second letter in the word is different between the singular and plural, there is no easy way to find bliet without reading carefully through all the words beginning with “b”. Mill-is one of those contractions, being a combination of minn meaning “from” and the definite article il-.

After two weeks, despite recruiting additional help from Google Translate, I still hadn’t fully translated the first two paragraphs of Oliver Twist and was roundly cursing David Brown for putting this daft idea in my head!

Eventually I succumbed and obtained a language tutor book. Most such tutors come with an audio CD but we are currently operating in a CD-free mode, without even a CD-ROM capability on our MacBook Airs. I was lucky enough to find a traditional language tutor by Joseph Vella. This is structured rather like the schoolbook I used many years ago to learn French. Each chapter begins with a passage in Maltese followed by a discussion of the relevant points of grammar and vocabulary.  It only took a couple of chapters for pennies to start to drop and I began to appreciate much that had previously been going over my head in Oliver Twist.

There are many other aspects of the Maltese language which provide difficulties for a native English speaker, some of which are due to its basis in Arabic. We have mentioned that the definite article is il-. However this may change depending on the word following. For example il-kelb is “the dog” but this changes to id-dar for “the house” and ix-xemx for “the sun”.

The letter q is very common in Maltese words but only represents a mild glottal stop and is not explicitly pronounced.  For example the town of Qormi is pronounced something like “oormie”. Malta’s airport is located at Luqa which is almost invariable mis-pronounced by foreigners as “lookah”. It should more properly sound  like “loo-ah”. Which brings us to the swearing Satnav!

Jaqui had dropped me off at the beginning of one of my walks and was returning home with the assistance of the Satnav. She was rather shocked when it came out with a four-letter word – the dreaded f-word in fact. The female Satnav voice, on two occasions, distinctly said  something along the lines of “**** san ‘ell ink oran ass yawni” Actually what the synthetic voice was trying to say was Fuq San L-Inkurunazzjoni which translates as “Coronation Street”. The word fuq meaning “on” or “upon” should of course be pronounced “foo” with the “q” being pretty much silent.

Given our schoolboy sense of humour, I can foresee Jaqui and I making regular detours via Fuq San L-Inkurunazzjoni when we are travelling in the area with guests in the car and the satnav switched on!

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Sixth Week in Malta

Well, I guess that means we have settled in! We have had no major events to report, only a gentle progression from day to day. I am sitting on my tiny back balcony with the sun streaming down, listening to the birds chirruping in the tall pine (new species to me – must look it up) and huge bushes sandwiched between us and the old Maltese house next door. Most of the birds are sparrows, and are particularly loud at 5am, but that is not to disparage them. They are a rare species now in UK even if they are so numerous as to be a pest here. We have swifts also. I think/hope they are nesting in the derelict hotel close by. We had a couple of families nesting in a previous house and since then have had a soft spot for these magnificent “devil screamers” who fly so powerfully and feed, sleep and mate on the wing, alighting only to breed. They are much bigger and more powerful than their relatives the martens and swallows. there are still some migrants. Last night on a walk to Tal-Virtu, a local palazzino with a chapel that dwarfs the house (not big, but  for sale at €4K), we saw a male whitethroat displaying fiercely to his love, who was nowhere to be seen. The hunting season is closed officially now , so hopefully they will be safe.

Tal-Virtu Palazzino and Rotunda Chapel

I have mentioned the hunting before, so will not go on about it, except to say that it is one of the issues that make me realise that we have moved to Malta at a time of transition for the Maltese.

The population is split over hunting. It is also split about the demise of the old busses with their colourful ancient exteriors and great gouts of black smoke!  Like the traditional fishing boats the luzzus, with the all seeing eye of protection painted on their bows, they have epitomised Malta to generations of tourists. Everyone recognises that the buses are a health hazard and do not meet EU emissions regulations by a mile, but their reliability and frequency is to be applauded.  Their quirkiness and cramped  seating positively encourages interaction between the multinational passengers. It will be a sad, if necessary day when their bright yellow and white disappears from the Maltese roads. There have been  suggestions that the hotels should commission some to be reconditioned and use them as courtesy buses – also that the airport could use them as transfer buses, thus ensuring that they do not fade from the Maltese experience of which they have been a part for so many decades. Many of them  had their coaches built onto the chassis of old military vehicles originally. Hopefully the drivers will be maintained to drive the new Ar-riva vehicles which have already made it onto the island  and which are due to be on our streets on 3rd July. The new livery is aqua-blue and white, and they are air-conditioned, with better seating and more room for luggage. Malta is coming up and progress has its price.

Another very important issue dividing the islanders is the upcoming referendum on divorce. Malta is an exceedingly catholic country. Every village has its festa, when the patron saint, whose statue is often paraded around the streets on his/her Saints Day, but instead of a solemn event, the festa is accompanied by loud music from the local bands and colourful firework displays. Indeed, several of the villages and towns honour the same saint and every one has their festa  on the same evening. This means that from a strategically placed restaurant terrace for example you can see the whole sky lit up with fireworks from as many as ten locations. they are each substantial displays. So their religious affiliation for the Maltese people is important. Divorce is prohibited by law in Malta.

However, there has been a progressively more influential movement among many Maltese to legalise divorce, representing a more secular approach to the issue. It is not so straightforward as saying that all those who support the pro-divorce movement are not religious. Many of them are devout, but it has caused a large debate in Malta. The government have possibly ducked taking responsibility for a decision on the matter, or perhaps they just feel it is too important an issue without wider consultation with the population, so have opted for a referendum which will take place on 28th May. It will be interesting to see the result.

There have been many interesting aspects to the campaign adverts on both sides. The “No” group have relied very heavily on religious imagery and biblical quotations. I thought the “Yes” group were less prominent until our trip to Valletta on Saturday, where we saw a beautiful bride in a lovely cream brocade dress accompanied by her groom, bridesmaids and family who were handing out what appeared to be wedding invitations to the passers-by. Mystified, we accepted one. It was not an invitation. It stated that these two young people who had been cohabiting happily for the last two years could not marry as he was still legally married to another, although all parties wanted a divorce.

The "Bride & Groom" in Valletta

It was a dramatic and effective statement by a couple who epitomised the problems felt by many in Malta. However, as we know from our own recent referendum on the alternative vote, results are not always for change. So we will have to wait and see how it turns out. If the pro-divorce lobby are successful, it will mark a significant alteration to the traditional values hitherto held so firmly, and possibly usher in a new social era for Malta.

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Fifth Week in Malta

Well, I have finally succumbed to the local female custom I have been trying to avoid. I have bought a shopping trolley. I am now a bag lady! When I first arrived I thought “Thank goodness I am not going to need one of those here.” Now,  I do possess a foxy red patent leather one in UK which I am very proud of and which  turns heads in Worcester but such things are not commonly to be found here. My Maltese model is nondescript brown, which prompted even my unobservant husband to comment – “but it doesn’t go with anything you wear! “ However, it is an essential piece of kit. It is the sturdiest I could find and therefore can negotiate the very uneven pavements and roads which plague my visits to the local shops, and can hold the large quantities of delicious produce/ bread/wine/confectionery and meat I get there. The larger supermarkets with their convenient car-parks are a poor second for these in terms of quality, coming into their own for more bulky items.

I did venture out alone in the company of my trusty sat-nav to one of the better, but distant supermarkets, hoping to get there without getting lost. Success! I loaded up the car with my purchases and made it back without misadventure.

While trawling the shelves and food stations, it struck me that food of all kinds is much less removed from us than in the UK. The veggies and fruits are not uniform in shape or colour, so if uniformity or aesthetic beauty is important, you have to ensure it by picking your goods out yourself. If you ask for a chicken breast, you get both breasts (still joined) plus the small fillet inside, and each one is invariably twice the size of those to be found in Sainsburys, and often still has bloody bits.  Nor are they packed in pristine polystyrene and clinical cling film. You can see they have come from a chicken! There is no way to avoid thinking about it, as we often do when our food is immaculately presented.

Something else that made me realise that I am actually in a foreign country struck me while in the stationer’s. Local shops here are apparently small, but it is possible to get virtually anything I want/need (high fashion excepted) in them. Again it is the display that is different. The shops have huge back storerooms and if you ask for what you want you will be able to get it. The trick is to know what shops stock what items. The bright lights and glossy shelves are missing. It has made me realise how much “window dressing” goes into our UK shopping experience, which while making it pleasant, rather than purely pragmatic, probably seduces us into buying more than intended. Just a thought. Initially I found this quite difficult, but am coming to value it more and more. The excellent service and helpful people compensate greatly.

Mdin Medieval Festival: Opening Ceremony

On Tuesday, I drove Lawrence to Fort Rinella for the start of his walk ( see legsit.com) and we were amazed to see so many birds in the semi-urban environment. We saw a dartford warbler, a blackcap, a stonechat and several finchy birds. I left him with trepidation to navigate my way back home avoiding Valletta, but somehow managed to end up there, sat-nav notwithstanding. However, it was only the outskirts and I was able to work out a way home. It really is a handicap not having a sense of direction. It must be like being colour blind.

German Medieval Bagpipers

Exploration continued that evening when we went to Ghajn Tuffieh Bay for a sunset supper in the little bar on the beach there – very simple fast food, but in a great location. It is a small beach reached by a million steps, surrounded by high land crossed with paths and we were impressed to see a lady swimmer taking a break during a swim of miles in the bay. She set out again at speed for the next bay along while we watched. It would have been nice to know her story. How old was she? Was she a triathlete perhaps or just someone who loved to swim? The sun was with us longer than we had expected, so we stayed until it set and returned to watch the Real/Barca second leg of the Champions league.

That's a serious sword.

The rest of the week was fairly banal apart from my first plunge in the pool which was deliciously cool on a very hot day. One of the other residents came down to swim with his son and informed me that there are many spontaneous parties by the pool and with a bottle of wine any resident is welcome. Apparently they do pig roasts as well which are attended by up to 120 people, residents and their guests. One of my neighbours is the sister-in-law of my butcher who supplies the pig. That will be something to look forward to. Food again! On that note I cooked my first Maltese rabbit stew. It was delicious, very garlicky and care had to be taken with tiny bones, but I was delighted with my first authentic Maltese dish. Thanks to my dear friend Jennie for giving me the recipe though I confess I tweaked it a bit!

What is Chris Smart doing here?

The weekend saw the yearly Medieval Festival in Mdina. This was a spectacular event. The “cast” who were groups of entertainers all assembled in the main square for introduction to the visitors who numbered in their hundreds. Each introduction was accompanied by a loud fanfare from the local fanfare brigade! All involved with the festival were in medieval costume and the streets had all been decorated with hundreds of floral arrangements, banners and tapestries hung from the balconies.

Folk dancers assemble outside a fine Mdina house in Bastion Square.

The first group we went to see was – predictably – a group of musicians who had come from Germany. The group comprised two sets of medieval elbow pipes and a woodwind instrument not unlike a schawm. There were 4 drummers, one base drum, and three djembe-style drums. This group was accompanied by a motley clad juggler who was absolutely spectacular.

The Folk Band

They were very vigorous in their playing and accompanied it with a lot of stomping about, looking fierce. They were incongruously accompanied by the inevitable CD seller!

Next up were the knights and men at arms giving a demonstration of the use of the weapons of the time. Being an avid reader of fantasy and historical novels, I was aware that battles of the time were bloody, but I had no idea just how effective or brutal these instruments were. A row of pikemen lined up and charged their audience. It was frightening, even though we knew no harm would be done to us. Then a broadsword of the type used from horseback was illustrated. This was as tall as a man and was designed, not to stab, but to sweep from side to side, hewing limbs, heads and horses from the opposition. An axe was in my estimation the most fearsome. It had a blade 2 feet long on a 6 feet long haft. They pitted it against a man bearing a shield and a short sword. No contest! Used both as a swinging staff and a cutting blade it was a formidable weapon, and the noise of the struggle was huge, as the armour and weapons were all made of steel. Imagine our surprise when we were told that the blade could be 6 feet long and the shaft 11 feet – a weapon designed to annihilate the opponents’ horses.

The armour was extremely heavy. Apparently noblemen were given their first suit of armour at the age of six and had to wear it and train in it for hours each day so that its weight seemed natural. As the child grew, so a new suit of armour was made to fit. War was a way of life, even for the young.

Handling a bird of prey.

We went in search of lighter entertainment and found it in the Maltese folk group playing and dancing in another square. Their bright scarlet, white and black costumes flared in the fast, flowing dances which seemed a cross between Irish and Breton to us. Again the musicians yielded a surprise. The accordion, guitars and melodeons were accompanied, not by drums but by tambourines. I have never seen one played in such a way. Every part of the hand was used, at speed, in every possible orientation with stunningly complex results. I intended to ask one young player to show me how he did it, but decided to run away when the dancers began to dragoon the audience into dancing on the stage.

We wandered about sampling all the entertainments, including demonstrations of flagwaving and crossbow shooting. It was a very happy day, culminating in a delightful concert given by a local choir in the Carmelite Church. The programme was varied and included several elements featuring combinations of saxophone, violin and vocal soloists. The principal tenor had a stunning voice which made everyone sit up and take notice. The music was a nice balance of medieval, modern and popular. That it was held in my favourite church only made it a perfect end to a great day. Oh, and I forgot the best homemade limoncello I have ever tasted. Locally produced. I feel very lucky to be here.

Bring out your dead.

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