Ten Random Reasons to visit Malta

If you plan on vacationing in Italy, why not extend your visit a smidgen and hop over to Malta?  This amazing little country has an abundance of things to see and do, especially if you are interested in history and archaeology. We spent five days there in late May, and felt that our timing was perfect…perfect weather, not too crowded, reasonably priced.  Yep, there was a whole lot to like about Malta.

It is very easy to get to Malta from Italy.  Although we could have taken a ferry from Catania, we opted for the less expensive, faster way, via Air Malta.

The title of this post is “RANDOM Reasons” to visit Malta and that’s exactly what you are getting.  Not order of importance, or magnificence–just the order in which they popped into this lazy blogger’s head.

1. The Grand Excelsior Hotel

P1180753It’s beautiful, it’s just outside Valetta’s wall, it’s close to buses that can take you wherever you want to go, the service is great, the pool is fantastic, the views from the restaurant and bars are incredible, and it is relatively inexpensive (at least it was in May, with several months advance booking. )

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The Excelsior’s pool at sunset

Be forewarned, though. The hotel is located below street level.  88 steps below, to be exact. The steps aren’t steep, but you WILL get your exercise.  Which can be a good thing, if you eat as much as WE did.

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The hike up those stairs is so worth it, because where else can you find…

2. Flower Shaped Gelato

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Although there is an abundance of gelaterias in Malta, Amorino was our favorite.  You can’t miss it–it is on Republic Street (the main street), on the right, if you are coming through the city gates. Your flower can have as many flavors as you want.

It doesn’t get much better than that!

And since we are on the subject of food, we discovered this wonderful restaurant close to the Blue Grotto.

3. La Cucina de Bettina

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The owner of the restaurant was also our waiter. That’s him, in the black tee, explaining the menu to customers.

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I’m ordinarily not a HUGE seafood fan, but this was incredible–the best tuna I have ever tasted!  Fresh?  Well, the owner told us our lunch had been swimming in the ocean just a few hours before.  Take a look.

No, that was not the serving size, but close.

We also had a wonderful antipasto platter, and a bottle of wine recommended by the owner/waiter.  I should have made a note of what we spent for this feast.  All I can remember was that it cost MUCH less than we ever expected!

I could go on and on about the Malta food, but I’m sure you get the idea.  It was delicious, varied and affordable.

4. Valetta

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Let’s just start with the festive Republic Street.

Yes, it does look a bit crowded, but if you want a more peaceful experience, all you need to do is duck down a side street.  Cruise ships dock in Valetta, so when multiple ships are in town, you do get throngs, but after 5, the city is yours.

The Grand Master’s Palace is on Republic Street, and there IS a guard changing ceremony every day.

Other activities in Valetta definitely deserve their OWN number, like…

5. The Malta Experience

P1180772Perhaps you arrived in Malta without doing any research at all.  You know NOTHING about its history or the history of its many invaders.  Not to worry.  All you need to do is buy a ticket to The Malta Experience, then sit back and enjoy.  You will be quickly brought up to speed!  There are other options on the island, including one that promised you a 5D experience (moving seats, water spray, air blasts and leg ticklers) but this was the one we chose and we were not disappointed.  Now if we had been traveling with children, we probably would have opted for the multi-sensory extravaganza.

6. St John’s Co Cathedral

It is impossible to capture the majesty and magnificence of this building.  It doesn’t look like much on the outside.  In fact, we walked past it a couple of times without even noticing it.  But walk inside and WOW!

 

We’ve hit a lot of churches and cathedrals throughout Europe, and the Americas, but this has to be the most jaw-dropping one I have ever encountered.

“The Beheading of John the Baptist by Caravaggio is in the Co-Cathedral, but just off to the side.  I needed to ask directions to find it.

The painting is HUGE–it fills a wall.  You can’t get close to it, so I was unable to verify whether Caravaggio’s signature was formed by the blood flowing from the Baptist’s neck.  TIP: If you go, bring binoculars or opera glasses to get a better view.

You are not allowed to photograph the painting.  If caught, supposedly they confiscate your photo card.

No, I did not break the rules.  This is a photo of a postcard, purchased from the gift shop.  A poor substitute, but better than nothing.

7. Transportation Alternatives 

Here’s another tip: forget about the Hop On Hop Off buses here.  You are better served riding the regular city buses.  They are far less expensive, and more frequent.  Normally we are huge fans of HOHO, but this one had a host of negatives.  Its headsets were not reliable.  Some worked–some didn’t, and the information they provided was not that great.  There were long periods of silence, causing me to wonder whether the headset had stopped working.  I was frequently consulting the brochure to try to figure out where we were.

We soon discovered the HOHO doesn’t necessarily stop in front of attractions listed in their brochure.  But it DID stop at listed attractions that were closed.

We made the mistake of buying the two day, (red and blue) pass, so never tried out the city buses, but we sure saw a lot of them.  Next time, city bus will be our preferred mode of transportation.

If you DO decide to go the way of the HOHO, you can get aboard near the bus station close to the Grand Excelsior.

8. Tarxien Temples

If you are into archaeology, you’ll love the Tarxien Temples.  Full disclosure.  We had wanted to see the Hypogeum, but that was completely booked.  And the Tarxien Temples were supposedly on the HOHO route, (not exactly,  as noted above, but we found our way), so why not?

These four temples date back to the Neolithic age (3600-2500 BC).  The Romans, 2000 years later, used the site for agriculture. The original structures were discovered In 1913, when  local farmers complained about the large blocks of stone they were striking while plowing.

There are other ruins for those that are really, REALLY into prehistory, but this was enough for us.

9. Gozo

We wanted to spend a day touring Gozo, and after our experience with HOHO, decided to book a private tour through the hotel.  We were not disappointed with our choice.  Marco picked us up at 8:30, drove us to and from the ferry and around Gozo, making sure we spent our time the way WE wanted.

View of Gozo harbor from the Ferry

We drove by Popeye’s village, now a tourist trap, formerly the set for Robin William’s 1980 movie, stopping just long enough to take a couple of photos.  

I remember suffering through the Iliad and the Odyssey during my Freshman year in college.  Maybe if I had known I’d be visiting the cave of the nymph who bewitched Odysseus, I would have enjoyed the books more.  (But probably not). The cave was closed because of “geological movement”, so we could only look at a hole in the ground, partially hidden by bushes, but the view of the nearby beach with its red sand was quite lovely.

Gozo had lots of beautiful ocean vistas, a lovely cathedral, a great multimedia show in Rabat, (the old center also known as Victoria), fantastic food—AND this rather graphic painting of St. Agatha.  Seems the Roman suitor she rejected got a bit miffed and decided to cut her breasts off in retaliation.  

She looks remarkably unconcerned, maybe because the little angel hovering over her head (holding a crown) told her that in years to come, the Maltese and Sicilians would create a pastry in her honor.  Think I’m kidding?  Take a look.  They are called “Minni di Sant Aita”. Honest.

The Azure Window would definitely have made the list had we traveled to Gozo in 2016. Unfortunately for us, in March of 2017, the arch tumbled into the sea, so we had to content ourselves with this post card image, and a view of the site where it once stood.  Still a scenic  and lovely area, though.

10. Mdina

The oldest city on the island of Malta, Mdina was built and inhabited by Arabs until they were expelled by the Christians in 1250.   Another fortified city, it has the mandatory moat and gates.

It also has the requisite cathedral, old buildings repurposed as cafes and gift shops, but MY favorite thing was the Palazzo Falzone, a 13th century building loaded with an incredible collection of antiques and the very coolest sound system ever.  

You just put on the headset, point the wand at a plaque on the wall and voila, you have a narrative about the article/ room you are viewing!

Olof Gollcher, a Swedish philanthropist and heir to a shipping fortune, purchased the building in 1927, and used it as a repository for his collections of art, silver, furniture, weapons and books.

There you have it.  This lazy, random blogger got you started.  These ten highlights barely scratch the surface of all that is wonderful and glorious about Malta. The rest is up to you!

On the Road to Piazza Armerina 


I know.  You are all just itchin’ to find out how we are getting from point A to point B on this island.  Well, itch no more, because not only will I  TELL you, I’m also giving you the visual.  We have been traveling in comfort on this lovely bus.  There are only 16 of us, plus our guide, so we have LOTS of room to to spread out.  

The view from these huge windows has been amazing.  We definitely chose the right time to visit Sicily–the wild flowers are blooming, everything is lush and green, and the temperature has been perfect! 

We are all so grateful that Marco, our bus driver,  is manouvering along these winding, VERY narrow roads, up and down the hillsides.   All we had to do is sit back, relax and take it all in.  

Once again, we will be time traveling, all the way back to Ancient Greece.  I don’t know why, but I just got a flash back to Mr. Peabody and his boy, Sherman, of the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.  (“Every dog should have a boy”. God, I loved that show! ) How sad that so much of my knowledge of history, at least what stuck,  came from cartoons and Walt Disney!  But I digress. 

When we arrived at the Valley of the Temples, we were greeted by another Marco, our guide for the site.  An archaeologist,  he came equipped with maps, diagrams, and an abundance of enthusiasm.  

Sadly, the site had been picked clean by those successive waves of conquerors, so it was difficult to extract much information about the lifestyle of the original Greek inhabitants of Akragas (as the area was once known) from artifacts, bones, shards, etc.  

Fortunately, though, eight Greek temples remain at this UNESCO site, all built between 510 and 430 BC.  The best preserved temple, called “Concordia” by the non-archaeologists, (because the archaeologists didn’t have sufficient info to determine the correct names of the temples) was saved from being scavenged by the locals because it was transformed into a church by the Normans.  Walls were built between the pillars, and the entrance was changed, then at some point (and yeah, I forgot what Marco said.  Sorry!) it was all changed back.


From the valley, you can see the modern city of Agrigento, just beyond Greek temple F (the archaeologists’ name for Concordia. ) 

What Marco COULD tell us was that these arches were once the entrance to Greek tombs, that were later repurposed by the Normans for shelter, with the actual grave used as a manger for their animals.  The Greeks dug shallow graves — only about a foot and a half deep– and covered the hole with rocks.  Who knows what the Norman’s did with the remains they found when they moved those rocks! 


My favorite part of the site, however, was this incredible sculpture of Icarus, who fell from the skies because he flew too close to the sun.  Clearly, HE hadn’t been under water for 2,000 years!  Also clear was that he was a modern addition to the site.


After our tour, it was time for lunch at this lovely private home.  


You’d think we would have figured it out by now.  What we THOUGHT was the lunch, was actually just the antipasto, followed by several other courses.  We have concluded that we need to get much better at pacing ourselves!  But if the food wasn’t enough, there was yet another surprise in store for us:  The owner’s grandfather had been a renown craftsman, creating donkey carts that were truly works of art.  

The paintings on the sides of the carts were of historical events, like this one depicting the assassination of Julius Caesar.


Even the spokes on the wheels were intricately carved.  


Here’s our hostess, who also functioned as guide, cook and server.

These magical interludes are a big reason that Mike and I travel with OAT.  We NEVER would have been able to arrange for some of these fascinating encounters on our own!  

By now, we were completely sated with food and culture, ready for our one night stay at Vecchia Masseria in Piazza Amerina.  

And yes, it really WAS that beautiful.  Another agritourismo, in a pastoral setting with delicious,  locally sourced food.  Life is good.  

Sicilian Celebration

Mike and I stopped giving each other “stuff” years ago.  We already have more than enough future yard sale items.  No more birthday, anniversary, Valentine’s, Christmas or Groundhog’s Day presents for us. Instead, we mark life’s milestones by making memories, mostly through traveling.  Refusing to succumb to the tyranny of the calendar, we are free to celebrate whatever we want, whenever we want.  If we happen to be traveling during an anniversary or birthday month, well then, that’s just a bonus.  THIS year is one of those bonus years.

We will be in Sicily during May, our anniversary month,  hoisting our glasses to toast 41 years of wedded bliss.  Okay, full disclosure.  Those years haven’t ALL been blissful (my sisters would add ” especially for poor Mike” ) but on the whole, it’s been pretty darn great!

We will be embarking on an OAT (Overseas Adventure Travel) trip with our good friends, Shirley and Owen.  Two years ago we spent  two weeks wandering through Tuscany and the Amalfi coast with OAT’s sister company, Grand Circle.  They had never been on an organized tour before, but had such a wonderful time, it was not difficult to persuade them to come along again. What’s especially exciting is that Shirley’s grandfather hails from a small village two hours from Palermo.  She and Owen plan to make their way to the village on one of our “free” days.  

This is what our OAT itinerary looks like.  As you can see, we are covering quite a lot of ground.

We will be staying for three nights in four of the cities: Palermo, Mazara, Ragusa and Catania, with a single night in Piazza Armerina.  At the end of the OAT tour, the four of us will head to Malta.  From Catania, we will fly to Valetta and will use that as our base during our five days in Malta.  

As usual, I’ve been learning the history of the places we’ll be visiting, and I have to tell you, theose poor inhabitants of Sicily did not have an easy time of it.  Here’s the Cliff’s Note version:  There was a lot of fighting and conquering going on–with Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Arabs, Normans, and Spaniards taking turns raping, pillaging, plundering and selling inhabitants into slavery.   Sicily isn’t at the bottom of “the boot” for nothing.  It sure got kicked around a lot!

Augustus, Hannibal, Constantine, Archimedes, and several Williams, Charles and Fredericks all had starring roles in Sicily’s narrative.  (Don’t you just hate it when the rulers all have the same name and you need to remember their numbers?  At least for the Williams there was William the Bad and William the Good.)  Throw in a couple of popes, an emperor or two, some knights plus a couple of earthquakes and an active volcano and you are guaranteed some interesting stories with even better ruins.

What fascinates me  more than the political history is the mythology.  Unlike the kings, whose moms sorely lacked imagination when it came time to name their offspring, the mythological figures have double names:  Zeus and Jupiter, Ulysses and Odysseus, Venus and Aphrodite.  So confusing to an already confused American, but that’s what happens when Greek and Roman cultures share the same territory.  

For now, that’s all you need to know about Sicily’s history.  More will be forthcoming, and there’s always the possibility of a pop quiz or two.

Preview of coming attractions:

  • Lots of cathedrals, temples, palaces, amphitheaters plus a dancing satyr
  • Eye popping mosaics, fit for an emperor, like maybe Marcus Aurelius?
  • an educational encounter with a member of the Mafia
  • a cooking class (hope we do better than the last time we tried this!)
  • “Come with me to the kasbah, where we will make ” whatever they make there.  (If you got that reference, you are probably as old as I am!) 
  • wine tasting at a Marsala vineyard
  • a day in the life of a Sicilian dairy farm family
  • a visit to Mt Etna to watch the volcano do its thing

Please join us for some armchair traveling.  I’ll be posting whenever wi-fi and my energy levels allow.  But I have to warn you, I plan to be toasting those 41 years a whole LOT!  Expect typos.  

Oh yeah, about that photo at the top of this post.  It’s actually Sorrento, from our 2015 trip.  I just wanted a little visual to start us all off.