Have Bag, Will Travel
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I am fairly certain that in 1997 there was a direct bus service from Mellieha to Mdina but this is not so today so we had to compete for space on a bus to Buggiba and then wait for a transfer to our destination.
In 1997 the bus dropped us off at the main gate where there was a flotilla of horse drawn carriages called Karrozzins with pushy drivers waiting to ambush people as they stepped into the terminus and I am not sure how this happened but almost immediately we were sitting in the carriage and taking an unnecessary tour of the city and my wallet was a few Maltese Pounds lighter. Unnecessary because it is only a small place and it is much nicer to investigate it on foot anyway which is what we did as soon as the trip was over.
Twenty years later in 2017 after a couple of tedious waits and changes and a long and circuitous route we eventually arrived and the first thing that struck me was that in twenty years there has been a lot of restoration in Mdina. The once crumbling walls have been repaired and the untidy concrete streets of hasty post war repairs have all been repaved. I preferred it the old way because it seems to me that the Maltese have managed to transform this wonderful place into a sort of Disney World EPCOT interpretation.
Most of the guide books recommend a visit to Fontanella Tea Rooms for a cake and a coffee stop so we found it and made our way to the first floor terrace. We did this twenty years ago but now we were not surprised to find that this place had also had a very extensive makeover.
I am never very keen on wasting money on things like horse and trap rides but Molly caught me in a weak moment and having convinced myself that a 10% reduction on an advertised rate was a bargain I was persuaded to agree to reprise a ride in a Karrozzin and we had an enjoyable twenty minute clip-clop ride through the ancient city.
Mdina is quite small and we soon found ourselves going down the same streets as just an hour or so ago so we headed for the main gate exit and returned to the bus stop. It was ten to three and the bus was scheduled for five past. Ten past came and went, twenty past, half past, I found an inspector who suggested that it might be stuck in traffic (bus inspector’s first excuse every time I expect) and then when one did turn up it turned its destination light off and replaced it with ‘not in service’.
Malta now has a seriously bad bus service so we broke a golden holiday rule and took an expensive taxi ride to Mosta. Don’t ask me how much it was because I will surely start to weep!
The next stop was at Mosta, for no better reason than to visit the Cathedral which was built in the nineteenth century and has a dome that is among the largest in the World – in fact (and you do have to be careful about these sort of facts of course) it is the third largest in Europe and the ninth largest in the World. You can believe that or believe it not but the most remarkable thing about the Mosta Dome is the miracle of the unexploded bomb.
During the Second-World-War it is claimed that Malta was the most heavily bombed place in the World and on April 9th 1942, during an afternoon air-raid, a Luftwaffe bomb pierced the dome (two others bounced off) and fell among a congregation of more than three hundred people attending early evening mass. It did not explode. Apparently it rolled down the aisle and into the street outside so it was a good job that the doors were open!
I suspect that that part of the story may not be completely accurate and has been embellished and corrupted by the passing of time but this is the way they like to tell it. I am sceptical if only for the reason that with a bomb crashing through the roof I imagine that there would have been quite a lot of panic and congestion in the aisle as people rushed for the door. There would have been a mad dash and a tangle of bodies that would make modern day bus stop queues look like a Royal Garden Party and the bomb would be most unlikely to get through.
One version of this event states that when a bomb disposal squad opened the device it was found to be filled with sand instead of explosives and contained a note saying “greetings from Plzeň” from the workers at Škoda Works in the German-occupied Czechoslovakia who had allegedly sabotaged its production.
A nice story but not necessarily true.
Anyway, not much has changed except that the statue outside used to be sandstone and is now graphite and the statue’s halo used to be graphite and now it is sandstone.
The picture was taken only fifty years or so before I was born in 1906 but in a Merchant Ivory sort of way reveals a completely different way of life to the 1950s separated as they are by two World Wars and a global economic depression.
The happy couple are my great grandparents Joseph Insley and Florence Lillian Hill. Joseph was a coachbuilder who was born in 1873, one of eight children to Thomas Insley, a wheelwright, and his wife Martha (nee. Johnson) who lived in the village of Shackerstone, near Market Bosworth in Leicestershire. Florence was one of seven children, the daughter of James and Emma Hill from the nearby village of Newbold Verdon.
Just recently, John* a blogging pal of mine asked me what is the difference between Portugal and Spain. It reminded me that I once wrote a post on the very subject. It was quite some while ago and I don’t believe anyone read it so I repeat it here again now.
On 13th February 1668 at the Treaty of Lisbon Spain finally recognised Portugal as a separate and independent state and since that time they have lived peacefully together as reluctant neighbours.
I have visited Portugal a number of times, in 1986 and 1994 to the Algarve, twice in 2008 to Viano de Castelo in the far north and twice again in 2009 to Porto. I returned again in 2017. Only on the final visit after a train journey through the centre did it really occur to me that although it shares the Iberian Peninsula with its larger neighbour, Portugal really isn’t Spain and on the flight home I was ashamed of my previous ignorance about the country.
I had always assumed that because of its geography that it must be a lot like Spain with perhaps a few minor differences, sherry and port for example, but I had come to understand that Portugal, its people and its culture and heritage is very, very different indeed.
So what are the differences then I hear you ask? Observers point out that the Portuguese national character is more sentimental, ironic and mild and these characteristics are often held up as the total opposite of Castilian culture just as melancholic Fado music is in complete contrast to the high drama of the Flamenco. As different as the poetry of Fernando Pessoa and the novels of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (header picture).
I have visited both Portugal and Spain several times and there are fundamental differences between the countries and the people that you perhaps wouldn’t expect between two such close neighbours but then again Spain itself is dramatically diverse with the people of Galicia for example having little in common with those from Andalusia or the people of the Basque Country sharing no characteristics with those from Extremadura. In Portugal the people of the Algarve have little in common with the people of Porto. Are we English anything like the Welsh? Why then should Portugal be like Spain?
I feel the difference but cannot adequately explain it but I have found two pieces of work which might help. These learned scholars have dealt with this question at length find both cultural and geographical factors at work.
Pierre Birot put it this way:
‘…thus, the typical characteristics that so gracefully distinguish the Portuguese soul from its peninsular neighbours, were able to ripen in the shelter of frontiers which are the oldest in Europe. On one side, a proud and exalted people (the Spaniards), ready for all kinds of sacrifice and for all the violent acts that inspire them to be concerned with their dignity; on the other hand a more melancholy and indecisive people (the Portuguese), more sensitive to the charm of women and children, possessing a real humanity in which one can recognize one of the most precious treasures of our old Europe.’ (Le Portugal; Etude de Geographie Regionale, 1950).
These two countries once ruled much of the World but their Empire building was in a different style, Portugal had Henry the Navigator a methodical explorer seeking out new trade routes with maps and charts and Spain had Conquistadors like Francisco Pizzaro swashbuckling their way through the New World with swords and gunpowder in search of gold.
Oliveira Martins, the Dean of Portuguese historians assessed the difference like this:
‘There is in the Portuguese genius something of the vague and fugitive that contrasts with the Castilian categorical affirmative; there is in the Lusitanian heroism, a nobility that differs from the fury of our neighbours; there is in our writing and our thought a profound or sentimental ironic or meek note…. Always tragic and ardent, Spanish history differs from the Portuguese which is more authentically epic and the differences of history are translated into difference in character.’ (Historia da Civilizacão Ibérica, 1897)
In Medieval times intense Spanish pressure and forced dynastic marriage compelled the Portuguese to follow the Spanish example of expelling the Jews in 1497, a step that deprived Portugal of many of its best merchants, diplomats, mathematicians, geographers, astronomers and cartographers. Feelings of resentment were aggravated by Spanish attempts to absorb Portugal, which temporarily succeeded from 1580-1640 (a period known as ‘The Spanish Captivity’). It was a political mistake that only encouraged a strong and proud reaction that cemented the identity of an independent Portuguese nation, a separate state and culture.
One major thing that separates them is sherry and port. Sherry is from Spain and Port is from Portugal as we discovered on a visit to a Port Lodge in 2008.
We learned that under European Union guidelines, only the product from Portugal may be labeled as Port and it is produced from grapes grown and processed in the Douro region. The wine produced is fortified with the addition of a Brandy in order to stop the fermentation, leaving residual sugar in the wine and boosting the alcohol content.
So what is the difference…
Simple! Sherry is fortified after completion of the fermentation process as opposed to port wine which is fortified halfway through the fermentation process
All of these differences and traditional rivalry go some way to explain why there were gasps in the room when Spain and Portugal were drawn together in the same first round group for the 2018 Football world Cup Finals.
* You might like to visit John, I think you might enjoy his blog…
The euro is useful because it has simplified travel to Europe but I miss the old pre-euro currencies. To have a wallet full of romantic and exciting sounding notes made you feel like a true international traveller. I liked the French franc and the Spanish peseta and the Greek drachma of course but my absolute favourite was the Italian lira simply because you just got so many.
So our travels were over. We had not had a train journey holiday since 2013 in Puglia in the south of Italy so it was good to get back on the tracks!
We flew into Lisbon and spent four days in the capital city, it was oppressively hot but we enjoyed it all the same.
If I was to do anything different I would have visited Belém rather than Sintra. Sintra is just too commercial and touristy.
After Lisbon we headed north out of the city to our next stop at the city of Tomar. Here is a top tip, buy train tickets in advance because at peak times it is a nightmare using the automated machines and you have to allow at least thirty minutes to shuffle tediously along the line.
Apart from the ticketing system the trains in Portugal are punctual and efficient and our planned itinerary was a complete success.
If you are planning travels through Portugal be sure not to miss out Tomar and maybe find some time for the nearby pilgrimage site of Fatima but that is a bit difficult without a car.
After Tomar the train took us to Coimbra, maybe the third largest city in Portugal or maybe not (Braga also makes this claim). A good place to visit, two or three days is just about right.
And then to the city of Ovar and the nearby seaside resort of Furadouro. Ovar is not really on the main tourist trail but it certainly gets my recommendation for a visit especially if you are lucky enough to bag a place on the Ceramic Trail Tour.
Next to Portugal’s second city Porto which is a must visit city on a holiday such as this except that we had been there twice before so it felt as though we were just going over old ground. We wished instead that we had stayed in Aveiro as an alternative stopover.
If you are tempted to do this journey then be sure to do them both!
Leaving Porto we took the train to our final destination at Vila do Conde from where we hired a car and visited the cities of Guimarães and Braga, two more must visit places.
We had a wonderful time in Portugal and would certainly do it again. Not my first visit and almost certainly not my last. I went to the Algarve in 1986, 1987 and 1994 which is a long time ago so I really need to go back. In 2009 I visited Northern Portugal and fell in love with the people, the towns, the beaches and the food. If there is anything like a certainty in life then I will return to Portugal.
On the final morning we woke early and prepared to leave Vila do Conde. We risked indigestion and snatched a hasty breakfast and then made our way to the metro station for the final time and took the tram to the Airport. Francisco de Sá Carneiro Airport is just outside of the city. Interestingly, Francisco de Sá Carneiro was for a short time the Prime Minister of Portugal in 1980 and some people have questioned the appropriateness of naming an airport after someone who died in a plane crash!
Anyway, we didn’t concern ourselves with that, just wasted away the waiting time and reflected fondly on our very successful 2017 visit to Portugal.
My next few posts will be a return to the island of Malta…