Category Archives: Malta

My Holidays in Malta, Valletta

Malta Valletta City Guides

“Valletta equals in its noble architecture, if it does not excel, any capital in Europe. The city is one of the most beautiful, for its architecture and the splendour of its streets that I know: something between Venice and Cadiz.”  – Benjamin Disraeli

The city of Valletta was built by the Knights of St John who were granted the island in 1530, seven years after being expelled from Rhodes by the Ottoman Turks.  Trouble with Turks however continued to follow the Knights and in 1565 the Ottomans laid siege to their new home on Malta with the intention of establishing a base from where they could conveniently advance into Europe.  But as in Rhodes and at Bodrum the Knights proved a tough nut to crack and the Great Siege of Malta which lasted from May until September ended with the defeat and retreat of the Turkish army.

The rest of Europe was so grateful for this stoic resistance that it began to provide funding for the Grand Master of the Order, Jean Parisot de Valette, to plan and construct a new fortified city that was to be called Valletta in his memory.

Valletta Malta postcard

We walked through the city main gate which isn’t a gate anymore, just a modern interpretation of what a gate might have looked like.  Not at all like a gate in my estimation. And then down Republic Street which undulates like a giant roller coaster and is flanked on either side by expensive shops and boutiques.  This is probably on account of the fact that the ugly cruise ships stop here now and all of the passengers are regularly emptied onto the quay side to go shopping and marauding in the main streets.

We passed the Cathedral and the Palace of the Knights and continued on our way to the furthest point, St Elmo’s Fort, which was closed for restoration.  In 2008 the World Monuments Fund placed the fort on its Watch List of the one hundred Most Endangered Sites in the world because of its significant deterioration due to factors such as lack of maintenance and security, natural ageing, and the still unrepaired damage from the bombing in the Second-World-War.  If Valletta is to be a European Capital of Culture then it has to be cleaned up.

The fact that Fort St Elmo was closed for restoration wasn’t really a problem because the whole of Valletta is in fact one huge fort with Medieval fortifications defending it on all sides so we set off to walk along the side of the Grand Harbour with views across to the marinas and docks on the opposite side.

Valletta City of the Knights

Walking along the edge of the water it was easy to appreciate just how strategically important this place was to a strong naval power like the British and why the Germans in World War Two would have liked to possess it.  Today the harbour is full of fishing boats, yachts and tourist vessels but it is easy to imagine it full of battleships and naval dockyards.

It was a pleasant walk along the water side but eventually we decided to make our way back into the city centre.  On a side street we came across a bar which seemed to be cut into the rocks but it had some tables outside and a large beer was only €1.50 and there was some Spanish style tapas so we sat there for a while and enjoyed the sunshine.

Eventually we drained our glasses and walked into the city through the Victoria Gate.  That would be Queen Victoria I imagine.

We were getting dangerously close to shops now and Kim stopped now and then to look at shoes and sparkly things but the danger passed and soon we were back on Republic Street.

Malta Valletta St Johns Cathedral

It was time to visit a church and although Kim wasn’t too keen, on account of the fact that the exterior was dull and uninteresting we bought tickets to visit the Cathedral of St John and even Kim was pleased that we did because inside was a complete contrast with an opulent Baroque interior and a floor of headstones each commemorating one of the Knights of St John.

There was some wonderful things in the Cathedral, art, sculptures, tapestries and finally a room with two magnificent paintings by the artist Caravaggio including the famous beheading of St John the Baptist.

Very good but a bit gruesome…

Caravaggio The Beheading of St John The Baptist

In a Museum there was an explanation that the Cathedral once possessed  the Saint’s right hand, which is of course a very important relic because this was the hand with which he baptised Jesus Christ in the River Jordan.

Unfortunately at some point over the last two thousand years it went missing.  No one can be really sure of course but today it is claimed to be in the Serbian Orthodox  monastery in Cetinje* in Montenegro, the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and also in a remote monastery somewhere in Romania.

Several different locations also claim to possess the severed head of John the Baptist. Among them are Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, San Silvestro in Capite in Rome and the Residenz Museum in Munich (a bit odd, if you ask me).   Other JTB heads were once said to be held by the Knights Templar at Amiens  in France, at Antioch in Turkey and, most unlikely of all, the parish church at Tenterden in Kent, in England where it remained until it was disposed of during the English Reformation as being superfluously Catholic.

Anyway, there are thousands of Churches and Mosques dedicated to St John the Baptist.  I used to go to this one every Sunday in the village of Hillmorton in Warwickshire where I grew up.

hillmorton church

When it was over we left the Cathedral and walked now to the other side of the city to Marsamxett harbour to the north where we watched the ferries travelling forward and back to the holiday town of Sliema on the other side and walked a while along the water front and admired the multi coloured box window balconies of the high rise apartment buildings.

I like Valletta, it is a vibrant city, an eclectic mix of Naples, Palermo, Porto, Salamanca and Marseilles and only spoilt by the fact that it has become a cruise ship destination which means more jewellers, boutiques and pricey restaurants.  I really do not like those awful cruise ships!

It was late afternoon now so it seemed about the right time to make our way back to the scrum at the bus terminal.  There was one due in ten minutes and only a few people waiting at the stop but by the time the bus arrived this had swollen to several thousand.  We were getting used to this by now and we pushed our way on and thankfully found a seat for the sixty minute journey back to Mellieha.

Malta Bus Chaos

* I have driven through Cetinje  in Montenegro and have to say that it seems a distinctly unlikely place to find the hand of John The Baptist.

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Doors of Malta

Malta Doors 2Mdina DoorMalta Phone BoxVictoria Rabat Door

My Holidays in Malta, Mellieha and St Paul’s Island

Mellieha Malta

As I have said I have been to Malta several times and always to the town of Mellieha on the north coast close to the ferry port with a crossing to neighbouring Gozo.

I think I recollect correctly that on each of these visits I have visited the town but have always been drawn to the top of a steep hill where the Church stands close by to the main square and a ribbon of traditional shops and restaurants.

This is what Mellieha looked like when I first visited in 1997 but it is a lot more built up now.  The Mellieha Bay Hotel can be made out on the far side of the bay…

Mellieha 1991

I thought it was time for a change so this time after I had walked around the waterfront and the and the sandy beach and as I reached the fork in the road that led up to the town I turned left instead of carrying on and walked along the rocky southern shoreline of Mellieha Bay.

I followed signposts to a small museum housed in an old watch tower right on the edge of the harbour.  Apparently it is a museum about tuna fishing and I am certain that I would have found that interesting but it was closed for renovation.  Apparently the three hundred year old tower is collapsing under the weight of tons of concrete poured onto the roof during the Second World War when it was part of the Island’s defense network.

So I carried on walking.

Mellieha Weekend Homes

The further away that I wandered from the beach and the harbour area there was not much to see, no shops, no bars then a private road with a gate and some holiday flats beyond so I had to turn back and then some interesting weekend homes.

Interesting because rather like railway arches in big UK cities they were built under an elevated section of the road,.  Many were boarded up and barricaded with hefty padlocks but in some the shutters were open, children were playing, there was a smell of Mediterranean cooking and damp laundry was dying in the gentle breeze.  It seems that these are weekend retreats for people from Valletta who drive down here on a Saturday, open the doors, give their washing a good blow in the breeze and enjoy a few hours out of the busy city.

I had walked about four miles or so by now and I was coming to the end of the urban development, the asphalt road became unpaved track and thereafter a dusty footpath that kept going to the end of the peninsular and I carried on because at the end of the mainland there was something I wanted to see – St Paul’s Island.

St_Paul's_Island_As_seen_from_Mellieha

Saint Paul is the Patron Saint of Malta because in 60 AD he was shipwrecked on the island, an incident which is recorded in some detail in the Acts of the Apostles.  Paul was on his way back to Rome to stand trial but a great storm sank the ship close to Malta and Paul and everyone else on board took refuge on a crop of rock and all were saved.  Today there is a statue of him there to commemorate the event.

Malta is the most religious country in Europe…

…it has more religious public holidays than any other in Europe and 10th February is especially important because this is the The Feast of St Paul’s Shipwreck which was bad luck for Paul but good fortune for Malta because it brought Paul to the island in the year 60AD and whilst there he went promptly about converting the island to Christianity.

But my story of St Paul’s Island does not end here and I give you my word that I am honestly not making this up but in 1997 I too suffered the same fate.  Taking a speed boat ride with Tony Oki Koki ‘Mr Crazy’ Banis the boat broke down and we were stranded on the very same rock in a storm for twenty minutes or so until thankfully rescued and transferred safely to Bugibba.

saint-paul-shipwreckMalta waves

My nostalgic curiosity satisfied I turned around now and headed back the way that I come, back towards Mellieha.

For the record there are three more St Paul’s Islands that I can find, one in the Bering Sea (Alaska) another in Nova Scotia and a third in the French Southern and Antarctic Lands and I am fairly certain that Paul wasn’t shipwrecked on any of these.

feast-of-st-pauls-shipwreckSt Paul's Grotto

Other Saint Stories…

Saint James and Santiago de Compostella

Saint Patrick and Ireland

Saint Spiridon and Corfu

My Holidays in Malta – Privatisation and The Buses

Malta Buses

“We are determined to deliver the highest quality service possible in Malta. Customers and their experiences are at the heart of our service. All our customers are important and no effort will be spared to ensure that all of the services we are trusted to deliver will be provided.” – Malta Public Transport

I knew that some things would have changed since my last visit in 1997 and the first and most obvious thing was the buses because up until 2011 Malta had a wonderful bus service with a fleet of vehicles mostly imported from the UK, privately owned, lovingly maintained, customized and painted in a distinctive orange livery with gleaming chrome decoration that required sunglasses just to look at them.

Even in the late 1990s these old buses with their growling engines and banging gear boxes were, admittedly, beginning to creak with age and by 2011 the majority didn’t meet EU standards on carbon emissions and their fate was sealed a thousand miles away in Brussels and the upgrade could scarcely have been more undignified.

Sometimes they weren’t even that safe…

Malta Bus Accident 1978

Under the old system each bus was owned by its driver, who would decorate it himself, giving each its own personality and charm. Some buses had been passed down from father to son, or even been hand built by the family that owned them.

The service was crudely privatised which meant that the Maltese Government no longer had to pay expensive subsidies (this is a lot like the sad demise of the old Island Ferry service story) and was taken over by a British private sector company called Aviva whose modern fleet replaced Malta’s beautiful vintage buses which now languish, awaiting rescue in storage somewhere at Valletta harbour.

Gozo Ferry (2)

The Perils of Privatisation…

By all accounts the transfer was chaotic and farcical, three hundred buses were reduced to one hundred and fifty, the old bus drivers either refused to work for Aviva and didn’t turn up for work on the first day or couldn’t be employed because many of them didn’t have driving licences, the new routes  were inefficient and the buses too big for the narrow Maltese streets.  Articulated ‘bendy’ buses rejected by London were sent to Malta and three of these caught fire because the heat melted the rubber bendy bit in the middle.

The Company name of Arriva is Italian for ‘arriving’ (a language that many Maltese speak due to the close proximity), soon after privatisation it was quickly nicknamed Aspetta  – ‘waiting’.

“Unfortunately, the new designed routes take you half way around Malta in order to save money on buses – that is the problem when an accountant comes in with an Excel sheet and dictates with no real knowledge of what the people need, want or require.” – Malta Tourism Authority (2013)

Buses of Malta postcard

This doesn’t surprise me at all.  I have worked for the private sector trying to provide public service and it rarely ever works on account of the public sector ethos of service and private sector profit being completely incompatible.  Based on my experience I think I am well qualified to say that privatisation never results in improvement despite all of the extravagant promises.

It was an operational and financial disaster and by December 2013 Arriva had run up losses of over €50 million.  The contract was terminated by agreement and the service reverted to public control as Malta Public Transport. The Government didn’t really want the burden of the service however so in January 2015 it awarded a new contract to Autobuses Urbanos de León who appear to have picked up where Aviva left off .

This reminded me of when I worked for a company called Cory Environmental  in refuse collection services.  One man I worked with thought he had a brilliant solution and produced work schedules in alphabetical order!  All the roads beginning with A-F on Monday, G-K on Tuesday and so on throughout the week, it didn’t occur to him that this meant driving hundreds of unnecessary miles and wasting hundreds of pounds worth of diesel.  I seem to remember that he had only a very short career in waste management.  Rather like the tendering team at Arriva who won the Malta contract I imagine!

Malta Bus

 

My Holidays in Malta, Mgarr in Gozo

Fishing Boat Mgarr Gozo Malta

“Gozo remained an utterly private place and lucky the man who could find the key, turn the lock and vanish inside.”  – Nicholas Monserrat

Mgarr GozoSculpture Mgarr Ferry Port Gozo Malta

This is the port of Mgarr in 1997 when I first visited…

Mgarr 1991

My Holidays in Malta, Ferry to Gozo

Gozo Ferry

In 1997 I visited Gozo for the first time.  It is a short crossing and there had hardly been time to settle down in our seats on board when the ferry began to approach the port of Mgarr and began to slide into position ready at the quay side for disembarkation.

Mgarr was thankfully a lot more attractive than Ċirkewwa and in the shelter of the walls the iconic multi-coloured fishing boats of Malta were swaying idly in the limpid water of the harbour.

We wanted to go to the capital Victoria but the bus looked crowded and so, because I knew it wasn’t very far, I foolishly allowed myself to be talked into a taxi by a persuasive cabbie.

It was immediately obvious that a short ride to Victoria was the last thing he wanted and he was looking for a much more profitable fare.  He told us an improbable tale that the capital was mostly closed today so we would be disappointed and he suggested an escorted island tour instead.  He ignored our repeated instructions and set off instead on his preferred itinerary and towards the east coast village of Xaghra where he promised windmills and Megalithic temples.

The last thing my teenage children wanted were windmills and Megalithic temples but once there he made the mistake of stopping and letting us out for a closer inspection and it was now that we took our opportunity to be rid of him and we told him that we no longer required his services, paid, what I am certain was an inflated fare, and the with a collective sigh of relief looked for a bus stop.

It didn’t take long for a grey and red bus (grey and red to distinguish Gozo buses from the Orange of Malta) with the sun glinting off of its immaculate chrome bumpers to come along and we climbed on board past the heavily decorated driver’s seat which he shared with pictures of his favourite Saints and swinging rosary beads hanging from the window blinds, paid our fare and found some vacant seats.

Gozo Malta Cannons

The centre of Victoria turned out to be rather too busy for me but the quiet backstreets were shady and quiet and we wandered around the maze of alleyways until we re-emerged back in the centre, visited the cathedral and walked the walls and ramparts of the old Citadel with its fortifications and old cannons and explored tiny side-streets until it was time to make our way back to the bus station and return to the ferry port at Mgarr for a late afternoon ferry back to Malta.

I returned to the island in 2015 and for our day on Gozo we had booked one of those open topped tourist buses.  I don’t usually like these because they seem to spend a lot of wasted time going to places that you don’t want to go but the man at the hotel reception had persuaded me that this was a good option because we could be sure of seeing all of the places of interest in one day which could not be guaranteed if relying on the privatised bus service.  We found the bus, made our way to the top deck and waited for it to fill up with passengers and leave for the first stop Victoria.

Victoria is the capital of Gozo.  It used to be called Rabat but in 1887 the British renamed it to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria.  I can’t help thinking that it is rather arrogant to go around changing place names in such a superior way.  A lot of people on Gozo still call the place Rabat – Good For Them!

The bus dropped us off and we made our way to the centre of the city, to St George’s Square and the Basilica of the same Saint.  As it was 23rd April there was a lot of bell ringing and celebration but the disappointment was that the square resembled a construction site as it was in the process of restoration and improvement.

We moved on from St George’s building site and made our way to the Citadel at the very top of the city which as the name suggests is a medieval fortress city in the most defensible position on the island.  This also turned out to be rather a disappointment because this was another construction site.

The Citadella is on the UNESCO World Heritage tentative list and it looked as though the Gozians are putting in a bit of extra effort (courtesy of EU heritage funding) to give the application a boost.

This is the Cathedral, no cannon anymore, replaced now by statues and the decoration on the facade of the building is gone which personally I thought was rather a shame.

In 2017 we took the ferry to Gozo again but when we got there we did nothing more than wander around the port town of Mgarr which is most likely something that not many people do as they clamber aboard buses and taxis and leave the place as soon as they can.  It was rather nice, we strolled around the port, explored some dusty back streets, found a friendly bar and then after only an hour or so made our way back to the ferry terminal and returned to Malta.

Gozo Victoria Rabat

My Holidays in Malta, Popeye Village

Popeye Village

As a rule when I am on holiday or travelling and reporting back on a place I try and remain positive and upbeat, I try to find the best in a place, I try not to be disappointed.

Today is an exception – I am going to tell you about Popeye Village.

Popeye Village is in Anchor Bay, Malta and it was constructed as a film set for the 1981 film starring Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall.  When the film was shot and the actors had all gone home the set became a modest tourist attraction.

I first visited the place in the summer of 1997 and in those days it still looked like a film set.  Entrance can’t have been too expensive because in 1997 I wasn’t that keen on parting with unnecessary cash (still not actually).  The buildings were much as they would have been for the shooting of the film, a lot of timber and the smell of sawdust.  There were a few little embellishments of course to try and amuse visitors but really nothing too dramatic.  In fact I think I remember thinking that it was dangerously close to falling down, one Mediterranean storm and it would be surely washed away and gone!

Popeye Village 1

Fast forward twenty years…

Returning to Malta and the Mellieha Bay Hotel it seemed like a good idea to visit again and take my grandchildren.  I thought that they might like it there.

Not wishing to rely upon the dreadful bus service I booked a taxi at several times the cost of the bus and it arrived on time and took us to the entrance of what is now marketed as a theme park.  I arranged to be picked up in three hours time and the taxi driver gave me a card and a sympathetic look and said if we needed picking up earlier then we should give him a call.  There was a message in there which I missed.

The first shock was the entrance fee, I nearly collapsed on the spot and had to be held up while I tapped in my credit card PIN number.

Popeye

As soon as were inside I knew that it was terrible.  The place has been given a gaudy paint makeover, all horrid primary colours; at the centre was a man who was dressed as Popeye but didn’t look anything like Popeye, a man dressed as Bluto but didn’t look anything like Bluto and a woman dressed as Olive Oyl who I have to concede did look a bit like Olive Oyl.

We stayed for about one hour, the children were bored, even they couldn’t find anything to amuse them, the boat ride was late and overcrowded, it wasn’t even a boat, it was a rubber dinghy, the water park was a paddling pool, the free drink (adults only) was barely a thimble full of something cheap and horrid and after sixty minutes or so (less probably) I searched though my pockets for the taxi driver business card.

On the way out Sally set out a list of complaints to the staff –   this is usually my job, I am the one to get irritable and argumentative but Sally completely upstaged me today and eventually I had to drag her away from the ticket booth before she trashed the place and thankfully the taxi turned up to take us back to the sanity of the Mellieha Bay Hotel.

Popeye Village 2

As I remember the film wasn’t that good either.  Rubbish actually!

I cannot find any single reason to recommend this place, it is expensive, it is amateurish and it is really quite dreadful.  It took me a couple of beers to get over the experience.  TripAdvisor gives it a rating of Four Stars, I give it minus four!

If you are going to Malta do not waste your money on this so called attraction.  If you are determined to see it then walk or drive to it and take a look from the other side of the bay, do not waste your money going inside!

So now I am thinking.  Where else have I been that has also been underwhelming and a disappointment.

If Popeye Village is top of the list then second has to be Gatorland in Florida which I had the misfortune to visit in 1990.

050

And in third place it will have to be the Wild West film set in Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands where I went with my daughter Sally in 1987.  She was less than one year old so happily for her she has no recollection of it.

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What is the most disappointing place that you have ever visited?