MALTA – FASCINATING KEY POINTS

MALTA – FASCINATING KEY POINTS

One:  The first migrants to Malta were from Sicily, Italy.  The Maltese Archipelago lies 50 miles south of Sicily and 176 miles east of Tunisia, on the northern coast of Africa, in the Mediterranean ‘basin’.  According to the Bible, St Paul was shipwrecked on Malta in 60 AD but biblical scholars now debate this as being ‘fact’;  the area I stayed in during my visit was in St Paul’s Bay – a town called Mellieha, approximately 1 hour by bus to the capital Valletta on the largest island in the archipelago.

Its strategic position has meant a multitude of ‘conquerors’ over the years including the:

  • Phoenicians [600 years]
  • Cartheginians
  • Greeks
  • Romans [ 400 years]
  • Byzantines
  • Arabs [220 years]
  • Normans [400 years]
  • Sicilians
  • Spanish
  • Knights of the Order of St John [sold by Spain for 2 Maltese falcons!]
  • French
  • British [160 years]

Napoleon conquered Malta on his way to Egypt [like you do!] during the French Revolutionary years in 1798.  The St Elmo fort and war museum in Valletta provides an interesting, and comprehensive, overview of the history of Malta.  It is well worth a visit in my view, and at the time of writing the entry fee was 10 euros.  The museum also has a fantastic view of the Valletta harbour.

Because of its historical past, Malta has had a huge number of influences, notably with regard to architecture and language.  The language is the closest Europe probably ever came to Esperanza – a European language that was designed to become common amongst European countries, but never developed.  The language has a huge Arabic influence but also contains words from Italian, French and English.  Despite being a staunch Roman Catholic country, the word for God is Allah.  Maltese is mandatory, as part of the education system, however, university opportunities are limited, so many students attend university overseas, mainly in Britain.  Healthcare is similar to Britain, although many Maltese choose to pay 20 euros to have a doctor visit them privately.  This is considered to be a very affordable option for the population [unlike Britain].

In 1814, Malta became part of the ‘British Empire’ as part of the Treaty of Paris.  It became an important trade route for Britain because it was a staging post on the way to India.  During the First World War, it became known as the ‘Nurse of the Mediterranean’.  Soldiers were sent to Malta for rest and recuperation, but unfortunately some never made it out of Malta.

Malta became independent in 1964 and a republic in 1974.

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Two:  The Maltese Archipelago consists of 5 islands:  Malta [the largest], Gozo, Comino and two very small islands which are not inhabited.

The oldest freestanding monuments in the world can be located in Gozo – the Ggantija Temples.  These date back to 3,600 BC and are even older than the Egyptian pyramids.  The little museum that you can enter before seeing the temples is absolutely fascinating.  Unlike the hieroglyphics that can tell the story in words of the pyramids, there are only the artefacts, statues and carvings that can tell the story of Gozo in prehistoric times – there is no writing.  However, it is very clear from the artefacts the mode of dress and hair styles of prehistoric times, which were very sophisticated for its time.  It also became clear, from analysing teeth, the type of diet prehistoric peoples were able to access.  It is well worth a visit because it is so interesting and unique. The temples were named so because local people thought they were built by giants initially.  They couldn’t understand how an amazing megalithic structure could be built by ordinary mortals!

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I took a day tour to Gozo which included the ferry ride, and a guided tour of the island.  This included the temples, Dwerja Bay and the capital of Victoria [previously known as Rabat].  If you climb up to the Citadel in Victoria, there is a magnificent view of the island, and on a clear day you can see Malta.  The ferry over to Gozo takes between 20 and 25 minutes, although the return journey only took 13 minutes, probably because of the strong winds.  I would highly recommend you find a seat as soon as entering the ferry because it is very busy.  There are not enough seats for all the passengers.  The ferry has toilets and a snack bar.  It is free to travel to Gozo but you must have a paid ticket for the return journey.  If you take a guided tour from Malta, then the trip includes the ferry ticket and a 3 course lunch with wine.  Our lunch stop was at Xlandi Bay – a very picturesque place.

Gozo is popular with the local people as a getaway for holidays and weekends.  It has a slow pace, is very green in comparison to Malta [which is mainly rock], and much ‘calmer’ and more peaceful than the main island.  The houses are very beautiful.  There is much competition between neighbours with regards to who has the most beautiful house!

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Three:  The Knights of the Order of St John.  This is a Roman Catholic religious order, and the oldest surviving order of chivalry.  It is possibly not that well known outside of Europe.  The Order can be traced back to the era of the Crusades and was primarily, in the twelfth century, an hospitally order that originated in Jerusalem to care for sick pilgrims.  It was founded by Italian merchants from Amalfi and progressed to acquiring wealth and lands.  In 1309, they ‘acquired’ Rhodes [now part of the Greek Islands] which they ruled as an independent sovereign state.  The Knights have a fascinating history, and there is too much information to repeat here.  However, from 1523 to 1530 the Knights were without a base, until they were granted the Maltese Archipelago by the then Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.  The Knights built the current capital of Malta, Valletta, and a hospital which attracted patients from inside and outside of Malta.  However, as already mentioned, the Knights’ reign came to an end once Napoleon conquered Malta.

I only spent a few hours in Valletta, due to time constraints, and I found it absolutely overwhelming – I didn’t know where to start my tour!  The attractions in Valletta are too numerous to mention here, and I hope this blog inspires you to visit and find out for yourself.  I certainly will be returning.  It’s such a beautiful city commanding an amazing view over Valletta Harbour.  The city was one of the first to use the ‘grid system’ for streets, and reminded me in that way of Washington DC [USA].  St John’s Co Cathedral is a ‘must see’:  ‘beneath each of the 400 or so marble slabs or sarcophagi, lies a man who lived a life of high adventure’. Valletta has been awarded the 2018 ‘European Capital of Culture’ which the townspeople are very excited about.  It was heavily bombed in World War 2, but ruins have been refurbished and re-invigorated.

The Maltese Cross is the symbol of the order.

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Four:  The Maltese Cross  – this is an 8 pointed cross, which is usually white on a red background.  The eight points of the cross symbolise:

  • to live in truth
  • to have faith
  • to repent one’s sins
  • to give proof of humility
  • to love justice
  • to be merciful
  • to be sincere and wholehearted
  • to endure persecution

The Maltese Cross has become confused in some parts of the world with The Florian Cross, which is similar, but fire departments, notably in New York, USA, have adopted a version of the cross as a symbol to represent honour and bravery.  The Knights were associated with the cross to symbolise their bravery in tackling ‘fire-bombs’ from the marauding Saracens  during the fight for the Holy Land.

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Five:  The Hop-on, Hop-off bus.  There is so much to write about Malta, but the best way to see, and learn about, the country is to use the hop-on, hop-off bus.  There are two tours – the North Tour and the South Tour – which cost 20 euros each at the time of writing.  They each would take a full day if you get off at the various stops to tour around.  I took the South Tour [Red] because I had already seen most of the North Tour on a day trip [which included the ancient capital of Mdina].

The bus tours start in Sliema, but offer free transport from Cirkewwa, Mellieha, Xemxija & Golden Bay, Attard, Bugibba and St Julian’s Bay.  From Mellieha [with the largest sandy beach], at the time of writing there were two buses at 0850 and 0950.  It’s about one hour to Sliema where the tour starts ‘proper’.  It takes around 3 hours if you don’t get off the bus.  However, there are so many interesting places to visit that I recommend taking the early bus so you have a chance to explore some of the stops.  I got off at Valletta, for a short time and then again at the Blue Grotto.  Because it was winter, and the sea was quite rough, there were no boats going around the area of the Blue Grotto but it is definitely a place I would revisit.  If you are going off-season, there are several cute restaurants for lunch or a glass of wine to break the journey!

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Summary:  Malta is an amazing surprise in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, with incredible natural beauty.   It is full of ancient history, stunning architecture [with a huge baroque influence] and I am sure will be loved not only by sun-worshippers, but also travellers intent on learning about history and pre-history.  There is much to see, is so eclectic and tourism is supported by a well-connected bus service, which is inexpensive and easy to navigate.  From the Air Malta in-flight magazine:  ‘If you have a flair for the arts and appreciate a good show, then look no further than Malta for your 2018 go to destination’.  Happy holidays!

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BASEL, SWITZERLAND – 5 TOP TIPS

If you only have a few spare days to spend in Switzerland, basing yourself in Basel would be a very good option. I had previously visited the more popular cities of Zurich and Geneva before digital media became sophisticated and popular. So, in early 2017, I decided to base myself in Basel for a few days. This turned out to be a really good choice.

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1. There are several nice hotels around the town train station in Basel centre. In Europe, it is always useful to stay near central trains stations, because there is easy access to trains [of course!], restaurants, cafés and, if on a budget, fast-food chains. I stayed at the Gaia Hotel, which is a beautiful, art deco hotel, with clean rooms, fabulous breakfasts and friendly staff. You can buy a ticket for the tram, from Basel airport, into town, at the ticket machine outside of the airport arrivals hall. There are several language options so it shouldn’t be too difficult [although I had to ask a kindly stranger for help because I didn’t realise about the language options!].
2. If arriving in Basel by air, you have the unusual choice, after collecting your bags at the carousel, of taking a left turn into France, or a right turn into Switzerland! Obviously, if you are staying in Basel city centre, don’t take the exit for France!
3. Basel hotels offer a free mobility ticket for each day of your stay – this means you can take public transport around the town free of charge. You can use your hotel voucher/printed reservation for free tram travel from the airport into the city centre, as part of this scheme. But, always check with your hotel beforehand that this is still valid.
4. Basel old town is well-preserved, and pretty with really interesting architecture, dating back to the 15th century. However, don’t miss the opportunity to take a day trip on the train to Luzern [Lake Lucerne]. Tickets are easily purchased from the train station ticket machines, and it takes one hour each way. Luzern is beautiful and surrounded by mountains. The lake is just a minute’s walk from the central train station. A trip by boat around the lake takes about one hour, and there are several restaurants around the lake where you can have lunch. Alternatively, there are food outlets at the train station.
5. Another nice trip, that I did, was a half day tour to the historical Rotteln Castle in Germany. Yes, Basel sits close to both the French and German border, and Rotteln is just 15 minutes’ drive across the border. I booked the trip before departure from my home city through Viatur, which worked out really well because you are collected and dropped back at your city centre hotel [with a free bottle of water!]. Rotteln dates back to 751 A.D., and a walk around the castle can take about 45 minutes. It is quite a steep climb but there is a beer garden at the base of the castle, either for those who cannot make the climb to relax, or for lunch afterwards. The Viatur tour provided enough time for a good exploration of the castle, and for lunch afterwards.
The photos below are of Luzern, Rotteln Castel and Basel old town. Happy travels!

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Tobago – the friendly island

Tobago is an island which is part of the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago, in the Caribbean. Smaller, than Trinidad, it comprises 300 square kilometres. I had the good fortune to visit Tobago in May 2017. It is truly a beautiful island, made up of sandy beaches and an ancient rain forest – the Tobago Forest Reserve, [protected apparently since 1776]. Tobago is sited on hilly and volcanic land, with many waterfalls and beautiful sunsets. Most importantly, though, it is the friendliest country I have ever visited. Everyone one meets, at the hotels, or in the streets wandering around, has a smile and a ‘hello’ or ‘hi’.
The temperature ranges during the year between 22 and 31 degrees celcius, although when I visited there were a few days of unseasonal rain and wind. However, it lies outside of the ‘hurricane belt’, and just experiences heavy rainfall during the rainy season. Although in 1963, it did experience Hurricane Flora which did a lot of damage to crops, and Hurricane Ivan hit the island in 2004.

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I flew on British Airways from London to Tobago via Antigua, another Caribbean island, which I have visited twice, so didn’t stop in Antigua this time.

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Christopher Columbus, according to Wikipedia, first sighted Tobago in 1498. The Dutch, English, Swedish, French and Spanish all fought over the original attempts to colonise Tobago. I spoke to one couple who went diving, exploring a ship-wreck, but I don’t know if this was from the attempts to colonise the country. It would be interesting to find out. Between 1672 and 1674, Tobago came under temporary British rule, and in 1814, it again came under British control. In 1889, it became a ‘ward’ of Trinidad.
At the time of writing, visas are not required for residents of the U.S.A, EU or Commonwealth countries. The official language is English and driving is on the left hand side of the road. The 1959 Disney movie ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ was filmed on Tobago, because it was thought at the time, that Tobago was the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s book ‘Robinson Crusoe’.

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I stayed at the Tropikist Hotel, which is located at Crown Point, in the south-west of the island. There are several hotels in this area, which are just a 10 – 15 minute walk to ANR Robinson International Airport. It is close to Scarborough, which is the oldest town in Tobago. From the Tropikist Hotel, it is a 15 minute walk into town, where there are banks and access to ATM machines if you need local money, which is the TTD [Trinidad & Tobago Dollar].

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I had the good fortune to link up with a friend of a friend, who took me around most of the island, south-west to north-east. This took around 6 hours. Of course, one can take an organised tour, but it is so much better if you hire a car and a driver, who really knows the island and can take you on a personal tour. The tour took in various forts, or garrisons, which are beautifully maintained, and provide a peaceful and scenic rest-stop. I visited Fort Milford, just steps away from the hotel, Fort James, Fort Bennett and Fort George. The tour took us through Scarborough, to Buccoo, Plymouth, Castara Bay, Englishman’s Bay, Parlatuvier Bay, ‘in-country’ to the rain forest to Roxborough, and back to Store Bay, where we started out.

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There are many activities to take part in, all which can be booked via your hotel:
• Rain Forest Tours
• Waterfall Tour
• Bucco Reef Nylon Pool Glass Bottom Boat Trip
• Fishing Trips
• Coastal Tours
• Little Tobago Tours
• Island Tours

A word of warning, though, they are very expensive – at the time of writing, the Island Tour through one operator was USD90. A one-day trip to Trinidad cost USD400. However, this could be a trip of a lifetime for some people, so save up and explore the delights that Tobago has to offer without worrying about cost! Hope to see you there one day! Tell them Jacquie sent you!

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Iceland – Eyjafallajokull

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Iceland was to see, and learn, about the now infamous volcanic eruption in 2010 – the Eyjafallajokull Volcano.  This event really put Iceland on the map.  I was lucky enough to have a tour guide [Joakim] who is also a journalist, who was in the area when the volcano erupted.  This was on the South Coast Tour.  He reported on the event at the time, and was on-hand to undertake first account interviews with the families, and farmers affected.  This is their story.

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Volcanic activity began towards the end of March.  A couple of fissures opened up, spewing out great swathes of lava, and black ash moving upwards towards the sky.  New craters opened up.  This was by no means the biggest volcanic eruption in the world, but the significant amount of ash that emerged is highly dangerous to air transportation.  Iceland is on the main airway channel for flights to/from Europe and North America.  Smoke and ash obviously impact aircraft visibility.  Debris can harm windshields and damage aeroplane engines.  Flight schedules were impacted for a significant period of time, until the dust settled.  Thousands of flights were affected, and some military aircraft were damaged – but no commercial aeroplanes.

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There was a big worry amongst the farmers close to the volcano.  Joakim was one of the first journalists to interview the local people about the event.  As well as the safety of the local people, there were threats obviously to the animals – sheep, cattle and Icelandic horses.  Also there was a threat to crop growing and milking.  However, surprisingly, the ash acted as a good fertilizer, and the grass that eventually ‘pushed’ through was better than ever.  Farmers around the non-affected areas all got together and provided uncontaminated milk to the area.  Crop growing has been restored, and there appears to have been no long-lasting effects.  However, what was eerie at the time is that there was no noise to be heard as a result of the eruption.  The black ash acted as a sound absorber, so it was really strange to be experiencing an eruption without sound.

Sir David Attenborough was one of the well-known people affected by the ash cloud.  He and his television crew were stranded in the Norwegian Arctic, for a period of time.  The local farmer interviewed by Joakim, has now built a small museum opposite the volcano which displays photographs, and other memorabilia.  A truly interesting visit but be warned – the Hekla Volcano, close by, could erupt at any minute.  Volcanos do not die – they just sleep!

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5 Top Tips for Iceland

  1. Iceland is not part of the European Union so you can buy duty free – alcohol is very expensive in Iceland – around 8 UK pounds for a bottle of lager – so make sure you use your duty free allowance if you want alcohol
  2. The average temperature in March is 0 degrees centigrade – the cold is manageable but the wind can be brutal – better to wear layers of clothing with a windproof jacket, rather than try to wear a warm, down coat over layers as this is very uncomfortable;  make sure you take a hat
  3. The warmest underclothes are made of wool and silk, and merino wool, lightweight leggings are really comfortable under lightweight over trousers;  I recommend merino wool long socks as well
  4. There are no 5 star hotels in Iceland [although at the time of writing, one is being built], so there needs to be some tolerance if you are looking for luxury accommodation
  5. Tours are very expensive – at the time of writing, a full day tour to the coast is 150 UK pounds, so you really need to plan ahead, and budget, otherwise you might be disappointed if you can’t travel around the country;  some of the most magnificent sights are outside of the capital

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Featured – Iceland

This week’s featured country is Iceland – the land of fire and ice.  Situated in Europe, in the North Atlantic Ocean, Iceland was once 90% covered by ice.  Once a ‘colony’, it became independent only in 1944.  Iceland is a paradise for photographers and geologists, and looks like a black and white movie during the winter.  I visited in March, 2017, just for a few days, because it is extremely expensive.  However, it should be on everyone’s travel wish list, due to it’s unique volcanic landscape and rugged terrain.  Not many people outside of Europe had actually heard of Iceland, until the 2010 eruption of a major volcano – the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano.  There was so much dust that the eruption grounded air transportation for a significant period of time.  The lesson?  Volcanos are never dead, only sleeping.  The Eurasian and North American tectonic plates converge here in Iceland, resulting in its dramatic landscape, full of glaciers, mountains, black lava fields and waterfalls.

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Icelandic traditions include a deep belief in elves, and trolls.  You will find buildings that incorporate large rocks – the belief is that the rocks are the homes of the elves and must not be disturbed – so the houses are built around them, to accommodate them.

The capital of Iceland is Reykjavik, which has a beautiful harbour with dramatic views of ice-capped mountains.

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Since I only had a few days to spend here, I had to choose my activities very carefully.  One of the main reasons that people visit Iceland is to take the opportunity to catch sight of the Northern Lights [Aurora Borealis]. On the third attempt, this natural phenomena appeared and was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.  We were surrounded by ‘curtains’ of green light, tinged with pink, purple and red, which starts 60 miles above the earth, up to 600 miles up.  There needs to be clear skies to see the lights, but the weather is so changeable in Iceland, that what appears to be poor conditions to see the lights, can change quickly.  You need patience, and luck!

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There are a host of other tours you can take, or travel around independently by car.  I chose the South Coast Tour, and then the Golden Circle Tour [to see dramatic geyser activity].  They can be booked through your tour operator, or independently through your hotel.

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No, the above photo isn’t me – just a tourist who got in the way of my photograph!

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Yes this is me – above!

If you choose to go snowmobiling, the South Coast Tour can drop you off for a few hours, and then pick you up again.  You will be provided with down overalls to keep warm, worn over your usual gear.  Great fun!  No, I didn’t do it – maybe next time!

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You can go whale watching – but similar to the Northern Lights, the whale sightings cannot be guaranteed – again, you will be provided with warm overalls.  Enjoy!

See also:  5 Top Travel Tips for Iceland post

 

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