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 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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